John Dietz on the Stanley Cup Final
Pittsburgh Penguins (50-21-11) vs. Nashville Predators (41-29-12)How they got here:
• Pittsburgh eliminated the Blue Jackets in five games, the Capitals in seven and the Senators in seven
• Nashville eliminated the Blackhawks in four games, the Blues in six and the Ducks in six
Postseason statistical leaders:Pittsburgh
Evgeni Malkin (7G, 17A; 24 pts); Sidney Crosby (7-13--20); Phil Kessel (7-12--19); Jake Guentzel (9-7--16)
Goalies: Marc Andre-Fleury (9-6, .924 save pct., 2.56 goals allowed); Matt Murray (3-1, .946, 1.35)
Filip Forsberg (8-7--15); Ryan Johansen (3-10--13)*; Ryan Ellis (4-7--11); four tied with 10 points
Goalie: Pekka Rinne (12-4, .941, 1.70)
* Out for postseason
The skinny: It's Smashville vs. the Steel City. P.K. Subban vs. Sid the Kid. Postseason Underdogs vs. the Defending Champs. Truly, it should be a great show.
Eighth-seeded Nashville steamrollered its way through the Western Conference using Peter Laviolette's patented neutral-zone trap that has infuriated opponents for years. Scoring chances were in short supply for the Blackhawks, Blues and Ducks, and even when they emerged, goaltender Pekka Rinne stood his ground and formed a force field around the net.
Only once in 16 games have the Predators allowed more than 3 goals. Think about that -- it's truly an amazing feat. How good has Rinne been? Well, in the last 10 years, only two other goaltenders with at least 10 postseason starts have a better goals-against average than his 1.70 -- the Kings' Jonathan Quick in 2011-12 (1.41) and the Red Wings' Chris Osgood in 2007-08 (1.55).
Nashville's strength is in its back end with D-men Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm. They must be at the top of their game from the start if the Predators are to become the first 16th seed to claim the Cup. The big question for the Predators will be if they can overcome the loss of Ryan Johansen. The do-everything center is the engine that makes the top line go, and while the Preds made it this far despite him missing Games 5 and 6 vs. Anaheim, managing to climb over the Penguins without him would be a truly phenomenal feat.
On the other side is Pittsburgh, which has a sick amount of top-end talent. Malkin, Crosby and Kessel own 1,006 combined goals, and the Penguins can also boast about seven other players who all scored 12 or more goals this regular season. Patrick Hornqvist (21) is one of them, and he might be able to return for Game 1 after missing Games 2-6 of the Eastern Conference final with an upper-body injury.
The Penguins' back end doesn't quite match Nashville's Fearsome Foursome, but their goalies have been great. Marc Andre-Fleury, who stepped in before the postseason opener when Matt Murray was injured, led the team to series victories over Columbus and Washington. The 22-year-old Murray returned in Game 3 against Ottawa and allowed just 6 goals in the next four games to help Pittsburgh advance.
Bottom line: Don't be surprised to see plenty of 3-1, 2-1, 2-0 and 1-0 games. But that's OK. What that means is we'll have plenty of compelling, heart-pounding, edge-of-your seat viewing.
Prediction: As much as I'd like to pick Nashville, the loss of Johansen will be difficult to overcome. Crosby, Malkin, Kessel and the ridiculously talented Penguins will be too much for the Preds, and Pittsburgh will prevail In six games to become the first repeat champion in 19 years.