PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – Well, here we go again!
After a thrilling, heart-stopping, take-years-off-your-life Game 7 double overtime victory over the Ottawa Senators, the Pittsburgh Penguins stand just four wins from repeating as Stanley Cup champions.
KDKA’s Rich Walsh Reports —
Just think about that for a minute. It’s remarkable that this team continues to find ways to win hockey games. Most teams would have folded with all the injuries sustained throughout the season and the playoffs. Not this team.
Most teams (even this one in the not too distant past) would have imploded when they weren’t getting calls. Again, not this team.
Most teams would have been deflated by a late third period tying goal to force overtime. This team came out with everything on the line and took it to the Senators. They simply would not be denied.
This team just puts their collective heads down and fights through adversity. In the words of head coach Mike Sullivan, they just play.
KDKA’s Ralph Iannotti has more from fans —
Now, they are one step away from achieving something that hasn’t been done in the NHL for nearly two decades – back to back titles.
Standing in their way are the Nashville Predators, who boast an incredible story of their own. The overall 16th seed in the playoffs got hot at the right time and have advanced to their first Stanley Cup Final in franchise history.
So, how do the Penguins put an end to Nashville’s dream run? Here are five keys:
- Break Down The Pekka Rinne Wall
The Penguins have faced some of the league’s top goaltenders in all three rounds – Sergei Bobrovsky, Braden Holtby and Craig Anderson. That’s a ridiculous amount of talent in goal. Now, the Penguins get to face Pekka Rinne, who just happens to lead the league in almost every statistical category in the playoffs.
Here are the numbers: 12-4 record, 1.70 GAA, .941 save percentage and two shutouts. For reference, he’s allowed a total of 28 goals in 16 games.
Long story short, he’s locked in and has been since the puck dropped in the playoffs. Oh, and those two shutouts? They came in the first two games in the opening round against Chicago…in Chicago.
Obviously, it depends on how he plays in the Final, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he won the Conn Smythe regardless of whether or not his team wins the Cup. (Yes, I know Evgeni Malkin has been lights out in the playoffs.)
It’s only happened five times in NHL history with the last being Jean-Sebastien Giguere in 2003. In fact, four of the five players to win the Conn Smythe on a team that did not win the Stanley Cup were goaltenders. How’s that for some bar trivia?
As was the case with Anderson, the Penguins will need to get bodies to the net. As good as he is, he can’t stop what he can’t see. Simplify the approach, get pucks to the net and crash for rebounds.
2. Neutralize Nashville’s Defense Corps
This will be the best group of defensemen the Penguins have seen in the playoffs. Roman Josi (5 goals, 5 assists), Ryan Ellis (4 goals, 7 assists), Mattias Ekholm (8 assists) and some guy you may remember from the Montreal Canadiens named P.K. Subban (2 goals, 8 assists) make this team extremely dangerous from the back end.
All can help get the puck moving north well and aren’t afraid to jump into the play in the offensive end.
That’s where the Penguins could utilize their speed to get on the counter attack. If they can trap a defenseman in their own zone, they could have numbers going the other way.
Additionally, the Penguins boast the best group of centers that Nashville has seen so far. Nashville will most certainly deploy those four defensemen against the Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin lines.
Odd-man rushes with those superstars on the ice is an even bigger advantage for the Penguins.
3. Forward Depth
Both teams enter the Final with significant injuries to big stars. The Penguins are obviously missing Kris Letang on defense. However, the Predators are missing their top center Ryan Johansen, who had 3 goals and 10 assists in 13 games. He is out for the series after requiring surgery for acute compartment syndrome in his thigh.
Now, the Predators found a way to win the final two games of the Western Conference Final against Anaheim without him and captain Mike Fisher. But, I’d argue that the Penguins present an entirely different set of problems for the Predators than what Anaheim brought to the table. Not to mention, Anaheim lost their starting goaltender during that series.
The Penguins also missed Patric Hornqvist in the Eastern Conference Final. I honestly believe they would have won quicker had Hornqvist been in the lineup. All he does is create havoc in front of the net. He leads by example and since he’s good to go in Game 1, he’ll have no problem reintroducing himself to his former team.
It will be interesting to see what the bottom six looks like with Hornqvist back. Who do you take out of the lineup? Overall, Carter Rowney and Scott Wilson were extremely effective against Ottawa. Conor Sheary appears to have found his game again and was incredible in Game 7 after sitting out the previous game.
Or, do you take out Carl Hagelin or even Jake Guentzel?
These are good problems to have if you’re Sullivan.
4. Special Teams
This will be a battle of a great offense against a great defense at both even strength and on special teams.
The Penguins enter the series clicking at a 25 percent rate on the power play (14 for 56). In somewhat of a statistical anomaly, they are 25 percent at home (8 for 32) and on the road (6 for 24).
Meanwhile, the Predators are converting at just 14.9 percent (7 for 47) during the playoffs. However, they are much better on the road at 25 percent (5 for 20) than they are at home (2 for 27).
While they have struggled on the power play, they have been very good on the penalty kill. Overall, they are killing penalties at an 88.1 percent rate, having only allowed 5 goals on 42 opposing power plays.
But, they haven’t faced a power play unit with the firepower the Penguins possess.
As for the Penguins, they are killing penalties at an 85.5 percent rate. Overall, they’ve allowed 8 goals on 55 opposing power plays.
As stated above, this is the first time the Predators have made it to the Stanley Cup Final. It’s also the first time 99 percent of their players have made it this far. Only Fisher has played in a Stanley Cup Final before.
Much like last year, the Penguins could jump on them early in the series as the Predators try and find their legs. Remember what happened to the Penguins in 2008 against the Red Wings? That initiation by fire?
The Pens did that to the Sharks last year and it wouldn’t surprise me if it happened again this year. This team knows what it takes to win in the Final. They were just there and their names are the most recent to be etched into Lord Stanley’s holy grail.
Nashville won’t play the boring 1-3-1 we were forced to watch against Ottawa. There should be a lot more back and forth play, which could play into the Penguins’ hands. The Penguins won’t necessarily want to trade chances, but they are at their best when they can use their speed.
The atmosphere in both buildings will be fun too. Nashville’s crowds resemble a college hockey crowd. Most stand for the entire game, they chant at goalies after goals and there’s A LOT of yellow. Their in-arena music choices during games range from country to hard rock and hip hop, making sure there’s something for everyone, I guess.
Personally, I think it’s great to see the support they have in a “non-traditional hockey market.”
Anyway, this figures to be a highly entertaining series. It has the makings of being a high-scoring affair, which means hopping back on the roller coaster of emotions.
If this turns into a high-flying series, it’s hard to pick against the Penguins. Nashville’s defense and goaltending are great, but I think the Penguins have too much offensive firepower for them to handle.
I think the Penguins win, but we’re still left waiting for them to win a Stanley Cup on home ice.
But, we’ll still be able to celebrate at the parade.
Penguins in 6.