Unlike last season, when the Penguins had three firmly-established scoring units producing at high clips after hatching the “HBK Line,” head coach Mike Sullivan has had to manipulate his attacking pieces to survive three rounds.
There are a couple reasons for this, but injuries have certainly been the most significant factor. Sidney Crosby, Patric Hornqvist, Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, Chris Kunitz and Carl Hagelin have each missed time, and when they have been in lineup, there’s no telling how much they have been affected by the bumps and bruises continuing to add up from last year’s run.
But despite being reduced to more of a two-line attack (in addition to losing facilitator Kris Letang on the back end), the Penguins have actually maintained the same scoring standard they had last spring, producing an NHL-best 3.05 goals per game after averaging fractionally less one year ago.
Pittsburgh’s three superstar forwards – Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel – have together already exceeded their total points from last season’s championship run. Crosby has seven goals and 20 points (he won the Conn Smythe Trophy last spring with 19) with a rotation of wingers, while Malkin and Kessel, whose partnership has been one of the few constants after rarely seeing the ice together last season, have combined for an incredible 43 points.
Hagelin and Nick Bonino have been nowhere near as impactful in secondary roles, but are still players that sustain team speed with their minutes, and can move up the lineup when necessary.
There are a few inverse elements when comparing the designs of the two finalists. Most notably, while the Penguins opt for patchwork on defense to exaggerate their attack, Nashville’s depth of talent exists on the back end.
Still, in these playoffs, only the Penguins have outscored the Predators, who are making their Stanley Cup Final debut with 2.94 goals per game. But where Pittsburgh has three forwards with 63 points, the Predators are a team with just as many defensemen with double-digit point totals than they have healthy forwards at that standard since top center Ryan Johansen went down.
But while the names don’t scream of the stat sheets, there are some majorly talented forwards pacing Peter Laviolette’s uptempo program.
On right wing, the Predators have Filip Forsberg, an emerging superstar, and a former 40-goal man in James Neal as triggermen on the top two lines.
Opposite Forsberg is waterbug Viktor Arvidsson, who tormented opposing defenses in his breakthrough 31-goal campaign with his speed and opportunism. And cut from that same cloth is Pontus Aberg, one of the latest arrivals on the assembly line from Milwaukee, who is proving that he can contribute at the next level in this postseason.
Nashville’s greatest concern up front is through center. With Mike Fisher also sidelined, Calle Jarnkrok and Colton Sissons – pivots with a combined 53 goals in 357 regular-season games – filled out the top two center-ice roles for Nashville in the final two games of the Anaheim series. In support of them were Frederick Gaudreau and Miikka Salomaki, who together are limited to Salomaki’s six career goals.
WHO HAS THE EDGE?
To quote Guy Boucher, everyone on the planet knows that Pittsburgh is the more talented team up front. But aside from the injuries, this was by design for David Poile, who has constructed a defense capable of creating mismatches of its own – no matter the opponent.
More NHL coverage from Yahoo Sports: