This hockey postseason has been exciting, entertaining, and miles better than the disappointing NBA postseason. Pre-playoff favorites Washington and Chicago were beaten shockingly early, underdogs like Ottawa and Nashville thrilled their rabbid fanbases with deep runs, and the NHL has another example of their postseason as the best in the sports world. It’s been exciting, maddening, and worth every second!
Tonight, the Stanley Cup Finals begin! We get a matchup between a perennial powerhouse and a new arrival. The Pittsburgh Penguins are looking for their fifth Stanley Cup and second consecutive cup. The Nashville Predators have only been in existence since 1998 and are making their first trip to hockey’s grandest stage. Both teams have rabbid fanbases, smart head coaches, and loaded talent. They will combine for an outstanding Finals series. So what are the things to watch the series for?
The NHL has had regular competitors in the postseason recently, but no repeat winners. Chicago has three Stanley Cups this decade, LA has two, Boston has been to two Finals, and Pittsburgh is in their fourth Finals since 2008. However, there has not been a back-to-back champion since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998. In fact, there has not been consecutive conference champions since 2008 and 2009 when the Red Wings and Penguins split the Cups. It is fitting then that Pittsburgh has a chance to be the first repeat champions in close to 20 years. Parity is the rule in the NHL, which makes what the Penguins are doing so remarkable. Pittsburgh will be remembered as one of the best teams of the modern age if they win the series. They will do what Chicago, LA, Boston, and every other great team recently has failed to do: win consecutive Cups.
The goalie is the most important position in hockey by far. Games have been decided by the net minders as far back as people have skated with vulcanized rubber. This postseason has been no different. Nashville had ridden Pekka Rinne to their first Finals appearance. The 34 year old Fin has played the best hockey of his career this postseason, with a 1.71 Goals Against Average and a .943 save percentage. Rinne has given Nashville their best season and will have to be big time against the powerful Penguins offense.
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, has had quite the adventure in net. Matt Murray won the Stanley Cup last year as the starter and was slated to open the postseason this year. Instead, he got injured and Marc-Andre Fleury was summoned to start. Turns out it worked. Fleury dominated Columbus and stole the second round series from the Washington Capitals, including a Game 7 shutout on the road. In the Conference Finals against Ottawa, Fleury got shelled in game 3, giving up four goals on nine shots in the first period. They replaced him with a now healthy Matt Murray, who has played superb hockey since getting back in, getting Pittsburgh back to the Finals.
Ultimately, Rinne is the most consistent goalie in the playoffs. Pittsburgh has used both of their goalies, which normally doesn’t work out, but has for the Penguins. Nashville has the stronger individual net minder, but Pittsburgh is no slouch with both goalies.
3. Contrasting Styles
These teams might have similar color schemes, but they do not play similar games. Nashville’s strength is from their blue line. PK Subban, acquired from the Montreal Canadiens in an offseason trade for stalwart Shea Weber, can direct a power play better than most defensemen in the league. Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm round out a strong unit that can control the blue line, limit shot totals, block shots, and create offense. The forwards can create offense, but Mike Fisher and Filip Forsberg are not dominating offensive stars.
Pittsburgh, on the other hand is a glass cannon. They led the NHL in goals per game this season and feature two sure fire hall of famers and one guy who’s got a more borderline case. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have won two Cups and have four Art Ross Trophies as the league’s leading scorer between them. The addition of Phil Kessel to their lineup last year had the same effect as adding Ron Francis to the 1991 Penguins, making them a Stanley Cup winner. The problem for Pittsburgh is that their defensive corps is limited. Kris LeTang is gone for the entire postseason, Olli Maatta, Justin Schultz, and Trevor Daley are not on par with Nashville’s defensive unit. Their respective personnel require different styles of play, which makes for an intriguing clash of play this series.
This year is the 100th anniversary of the NHL and the 50th for the Pittsburgh Penguins. The NHL has featured a few star players that transcend the regular descriptions of excellence. Sidney Crosby is one of those players. Pittsburgh lucked into him when they won the lottery in 2005 for the top pick in the draft. Since then, Crosby has led the league in scoring, won MVPs, and led the Penguins to multiple Stanley Cups. If he wins another Stanley Cup, he climbs higher up the ranking of all time greats. Same thing for Evgeni Malkin. Phil Kessel also secures himself a spot in the hall of fame if he helps Pittsburgh to a championship.
Nashville also has some legacy to fight for. PK Subban wants to secure his spot as one of the best defensemen in the game, Pekka Rinne wants his reputation as a top goalie to be solidified, and the Predators want Nashville to be a secure hockey market. That third one is the most important. Hockey has grown in popularity internationally, but still is struggling to keep up with basketball and football in the United States. The sport needs some cities in untraditional places to take to it for development. Nashville’s success in developing a rabbid fan base is already reason for being happy, but if they win the Stanley Cup, they would bring hockey in the south to the forefront.
I cannot tell you how excited I am for this series to start! I also cannot tell you what’s gonna happen. These teams play differently enough that the question must be who can dictate the rhythm of the game? If Pittsburgh can skate and shoot as fast as they’re capable of, this is a Pittsburgh exercise in domination. If Pittsburgh goes cold and Nashville can dictate a defensive and hard hitting game, Nashville’s got their first Stanley Cup. If I were forced to pick who will win, I’d guess Pittsburgh. They have the experience, the scoring, and the capable goaltender play. This postseason has reminded us to not take chalk on the predictions. I will watch this series with baited breath and see what happens. I hope you will too.