Friday, May 26, 2017

Down To The Final Two

The Pittsburgh Penguins will look to successfully defend their title as Stanley Cup Champions against the Nashville Predators beginning on Monday at home.  No team since the 1997 and 1998 Detroit Red Wings have managed to repeat.

Pittsburgh survived a thrilling 3-2 double overtime game 7 against the Ottawa Senators to reach the Final, their second straight game 7 of these playoffs, knocking off the President Trophy winners, Washington Capitals, in round 2.  Despite missing out on their top two centres, the Predators won back to back games and pluck the feathers off the Anaheim Ducks in six games.

Nashville have been waiting since Monday and will have a full week off in between games, while the Penguins will only have three days off.  The long break for the Predators could be both an advantage and disadvantage.  The advantage comes from the obvious; being able to get as healthy as one could get after weeks of hard, bruising playoff hockey.  However, that's weighed against the loss of momentum (if you believe in stuff like that) going into the franchise's first every Stanley Cup Final appearance.  By this point, the players have developed a routine and the long break could throw them off.  Playing game 1 on the road could help the Predators maintain their focus.

Injuries have been an issue for the Penguins throughout these playoffs, which makes them returning to the Final that much more remarkable.  The good news is that they are getting bodies back.  At what percentage of health they are working at is something only the players know.  At this point, only Patric Hornqvist is the only regular, outside of Kris Letang (no chance of coming back) that remains on the IR.  Don't be surprised, though, if we see him at some point in the Final against his formal team, if he isn't ready to go for game 1.

So, who will raise the Stanley Cup at the end?

The Predators, unquestionably, have had the best goalie during these playoffs.  Pekka Rinne's numbers have been off the charts, and they will need to continue to be if he wants to be able to get his name etched into the greatest trophy in professional sports.  As talented as their previous opponents were, the Pittsburgh Penguins present a different beast, that features the game's best player in Sidney Crosby and the playoffs leading scorer in Evgeni Malkin.

They will need to continue to get surprising performances like the one from Colton Sissons in game 6 against the Ducks, where he recorded a natural hat-trick, including the game winner.  Sixteen players have scored for the Predators during these playoffs, and all sixteen might have to beat Pittsburgh.

The defence will have their hands full with Crosby and Malkin, but will also be called on to provide offence in the same matter that they did against St. Louis, when the top line was effectively shut down.  The group lead by Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, P.K. Subban, and Mattias Ekholm, have combined to lead the playoffs in goals by a defence core.

It's funny how at the beginning of the season, very few people picked the Penguins to return to the Final, let alone repeat as champions.  The experts had the Washington Capitals finally breaking through in the east, or the Tampa Bay Lightning making it three times a charm, having made it to back to back Eastern Conference Finals the last two seasons, only to fall short.  It goes to show how difficult it actually is to repeat, having played 106 regular season and playoff games combined last season.

But, here they are, ready to defend their title.

The experience of having won just a year ago will pull them through to successfully defend their title.  They have battled hard and had to deal with adversity throughout these playoffs, whether its injuries or two game 7s.

Sidney Crosby broke out of the funk he was in, following the concussion he received from Washington's Matt Niskanen, in the second half of the Eastern Conference Final.  That's bad news for the Predators.  If you stop Crosby, then there's Malkin to deal with.  Or Phil Kessel, who no matter how you think of him, is as dangerous as anyone on the ice.

Pittsburgh's power-play operates at a 25% clip, while Nashville is languishing at only 14.9%. Without Ryan Johanssen, it becomes even more difficult for Nashville, who were able to get away with an unproductive power-play against Anaheim.  It won't against Pittsburgh.

The Penguins will repeat as Stanley Cup Champions in six games, with Crosby once again named the Conn Smythe winner.

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