The Stanley Cup Finals are over a game too early! This postseason was one of the best ever. Overtimes were plentiful, heartbreak was everywhere, and the sport put on a show that no other league can. There’s just one issue: It ended before we got to Game 7 of the Finals! Aside from that disappointment, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Nashville Predators provided fans with a well played and exciting cap to the 2017 NHL playoffs. At the start of the series, I predicted a Penguins victory with the provision that it was a toss up decision. With the series over, let’s take a look at what led to Pittsburgh hoisting their second consecutive Stanley Cup.
1. Predator’s Lack of Offensive Potence
The chatter before the series was about Nashville’s defensive unit going up against Pittsburgh’s hall of fame forwards. Both teams were injured in critical ways and tried to play to their strengths with their cores. Nashville won when their defensive unit could keep Pittsburgh off the puck. Unfortunately, the Predators did not have the forwards to keep pace with the Penguins lines. Nashville was short on the offensive end, which makes some sense as Pittsburgh sports two guaranteed Hall of Famers in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and one borderline Hall of Famer in Phil Kessel. But there were two major pieces that could’ve lifted the Preds offense.
24 year old Ryan Johansen was one of the best centers in the league this season. This postseason, he played in 14 games and collected 13 points. He was a major piece of the Predators attack. And he was not able to play in the Finals. In Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals against the Anaheim Ducks, Johansen took a hit and felt unusual pain in his leg. He played the whole game, which went into overtime, showered, realized just how bad his leg was, and got himself to the hospital. He was diagnosed with Acute Compartment Syndrome in his left thigh and was shut down for the remainder of the playoffs. So Nashville was without a top center.
There’s one other personnel issue that undercut Nashville’s chances for success. In 2012, Nashville selected Jimmy Vesey, a left winger from Harvard, with the 66th pick in the draft. Vesey played all four years inn Cambridge, winning the Hobey Baker Award as the best collegiate player in 2016 and laying the foundation for Harvard’s hockey renaissance. Near the end of his time in college, the Crimson star was guaranteed a spot on the Predators regular season and postseason roster in 2016. However, Vesey informed Nashville that he was not interested in signing with them. He did not want to play in Tennessee and wanted to choose his own destination. He ended up signing with the New York Rangers. He helped the team to a playoff series upset over the Montreal Canadiens, but they lost in the second round to the Ottawa Senators. While Vesey watched, the team he spurned had a legitimate chance at the Stanley Cup. The Boston native wanted to determine his own landing spot. He got what he wanted, but for now, Vesey screwed up royally. He could have been competing alongside PK Subban and Mike Fisher for the Stanley Cup in his second year in the pros.
2. Controversial Stripes
Let’s deal with this now: Nashville got absolutely screwed by one of the worst officiating calls I’ve ever seen. To be fair, the Predators had plenty of opportunities after the blown call to score, including a 5 on 3 power play in the third period. But proceeding opportunities do not change the fact that the game should have been 1-0 Nashville in the second period. Early in the frame, Nashville had momentum, energy, and the crowd. Filip Forsberg fired the puck on net and it got through Matt Murray for Colton Sissons to put it home. Except the official thought Murray had controlled the puck and whistled the play dead, wiping the goal off the board. To repeat myself and ensure my position, the Preds had opportunities to score and take the lead later in the game, but those later chances do not excuse abysmal officiating.
In the first three rounds of the postseason, 34 year old Pekka Rinne played the best hockey of his career. He totaled a 1.71 Goals Against Average and a .943 save percentage, both among the best in the history of the NHL for a postseason. Against Pittsburgh though, Rinne was a mere mortal. He was pulled twice in the series, in games 2 and 5, and his GAA went up to 2.33 while his save percentage dropped to .888 for the series. The Predators needed exceptional play from Rinne to beat Pittsburgh and they did not get it, especially in Pittsburgh. His counterpart, Matt Murray, lived up to the pressure and performed admirably all series, with a shutout in the final game of the series. Pekka turned into a pumpkin before midnight while Murray got to dance at the ball the whole night.
Ever since getting the job as head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Mike Sullivan has been the most steady coach in the league. His team was outplayed by Washington for most of their second round series, and got destroyed by Ottawa in multiple games of that series. Sullivan saw the team through both of those roadblocks and led the Penguins to their second consecutive championship. He joins Toe Blake as the second head coach to win Stanley Cups in their first two seasons. Enjoy the stability of a BU Terrier favorite Pittsburgh!
The calling card for Pittsburgh all postseason was their ability to persevere and fight. They went the length of the hardest postseason in sports without their top defenseman, Kris LeTang, and lost Nick Bonino in the Finals. They used both goaltenders in the playoffs. Marc-Andre Fleury almost singlehandedly beat Columbus and Washington after Murray injured himself during warmups in Game 1 of the postseason. Then Murray replaced Fleury in the Conference Finals against Ottawa when Fleury gave up 4 goals on nine shots in Game 3. And they went on to topple the Senators in Overtime. They then struggled to find a way to beat Nashville on the road in Games 3 and 4 of the finals. They outlasted Nashville, and created the opportunities to win. They killed a 5 on 3 late power play, scored off Rinne’s back, and escaped with the franchise’s fifth Stanley Cup.
One last thing, Crosby should not be a 2 time Conn Smythe Trophey winner. Phil Kessel was robbed of that trophey last year and this year’s award should’ve gone to either Evgeni Malkin or Jake Guentzel.
All that said, congratulations to the Pittsburgh Penguins on their second consecutive Stanley Cup. They fought through an incredible series of battles and deserve the win. Crosby has secured his position in the upper eschilon of hockey’s elite, and the Penguins earned the title in a sport not built for repeat champions. I feel for the Predators. They went on a deep run and established themselves as a bonafide hockey destination. They have a great team and will be a competitor in the West. I just hope they can rebound from the pain to start next season strong. And now we have to wait until autumn to get the glories of hockey again.