The Pittsburgh Penguins and Nashville Predators will play for the Stanley Cup beginning next week, with the Penguins looking to repeat and the Predators looking to turn hockey’s Holy Grail into a giant spittoon, we imagine.
This is going to be fun. Super fun. If a little confusing, given the teams’ color schemes.
Here are the five things that have me most intrigued, at first blush:
Penguins Domination Vs. Survival
The Predators rolled teams to get here, starting with their emphatic sweep of the Chicago Blackhawks through their six-game series win over the Anaheim Ducks. After a while, it just felt like they were going to play for the Cup.
But can we be honest? We’re a little surprised the Penguins are here.
The Washington Capitals looked like they had them dead-to-rights in Game 7 of that semifinal series, which began like a coronation before it ended in ruination for the Capitals.
In Game 7 on Thursday night, the Ottawa Senators felt like a team, thanks to their two mini-rallies, that was going to find a way to win. Instead, it was the Pittsburgh Penguins getting a Chris Kunitz floater in double-overtime to advance.
This isn’t a Penguins team that’ll dominate you on most nights. They have a 42.04 Corsi percentage for the postseason, after being over 51 percent in the regular season. (They were at 51.63 last postseason.) They seem content to wait around for one of their stars or clutch players to make a play at a huge moment.
But while the defending champs don’t blow you off the ice with dominating play, the Penguins are without equal in their resiliency. They’ve played through injury and exhaustion and adversity. They’ve done it all without their best defenseman.
It makes both total sense and no sense that they’re here.
Can The Predators Win Without Johansen?
Nashville managed to win two games without star center Ryan Johansen, who is out for the playoffs after surgery on his leg. The question is whether they can win four more.
There are some encouraging signs that they can.
The biggest worry is, of course, that the Penguins have three great centers in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Nick Bonino, while the Predators’ top three in Game 6 were Calle Jarnkrok, Colton Sissons and Frederick Gaudreau. And yet all three have played really well, with Sissons tallying a hat trick in Game 6 against Anaheim. That’s partially because Peter Laviolette smartly distributed the remaining members of his top line, Viktor Arvidsson and Filip Forsberg, to the first and second lines.
Plus, Mike Fisher is due back from injury, which helps.
But the biggest boost for the Predators comes from the fact that their scoring is so incredibly distributed. They have seven players with 10 points or more this postseason, including three defensemen. That they might be deep enough to sustain an injury to their top center is, frankly, something we didn’t see coming.
The best thing the Penguins have going in this series is home ice advantage, because that means the Predators can’t simply win four times in Nashville – which would have been a possibility.
The catfish tossin’, honky-tonkin’, gold-wearin’ beer-swillin’ Preds fans in Smashville have created a dominating home-ice advantage. Nashville is 7-1 at home in the playoffs with a goal differential of plus-12.
And so the mission gains clarity for the Predators: Earn the split in Games 1 and 2, and take care of business back home.
A Referendum On The James Neal Trade!
You can be forgiven if you don’t recall these players and their monumental 2014 trade. Patric Hornqvist has been limited to 13 games. James Neal has been … well, limited.
But trade between the Preds and Pens, which also saw Nick Spaling head to Pittsburgh, was a rather momentous one for the franchises. The Penguins had fired Ray Shero and Dan Bylsma, and trading Neal was an indication that they were willing to sacrifice core players for perceived upgrades – Hornqvist, for example, gave them a net-front presence they sorely needed.
As for the Predators and GM David Poile, this trade was an indication that he was willing to deal beloved players if it meant making Nashville better. This would be a theme revisited in much greater deals over the next three years.
If nothing else, enjoy Neal before he inevitably ends up in Vegas next season.
Finally, This Is Going To Be A Party
When that Kunitz shot went in, we imagined NBC executives slumping back in their chairs with an exhausted sigh of relief like Admiral Akbar in “Return of the Jedi” when the Star Destroyer Executor is demolished.
This matchup is ridiculously compelling. You have the Penguins and Sidney Crosby, a team that pops monster ratings at home and draws eyes from the rest of the hockey world that want to see them lose. You have the Predators, a team that pops monster ratings at home and draws eyes from the rest of the hockey world that want to witness this party going on in Nashville first hand.
(Oh, as well as fans that want to see P.K. Subban win the Cup and squirt lemon juice in the eyes of Montreal management.)
On top of that, you have this entire movement of celebrities backing the Preds, from country music stars to pro wrestlers to NFL players, which we assume the media is going to really push when writing their “Nashville Is a Hockey Town!” trend stories.
This was the best money matchup on the table, and it’s one that has a prayer of crossing over to casual sports fans who are going to be otherwise occupied by LeBron vs. the Warriors.
Of course, it would help if our hockey sleeper agent continues to lend a hand:
Charles Barkley: "I'm gonna sneak back to the hotel, watch the rest of the hockey game – it's 1-1 y'all – and I'm gonna pack up my stuff." ???? pic.twitter.com/xddUsCaZY1
— Jeff Eisenband (@JeffEisenband) May 26, 2017
Game 1 is Monday night. Buckle up.
The Early Prediction That I Can Totally Change Up Until The Point That The Official Puck Daddy Picks Are Released
Penguins in 7.
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