Defence, or offence, wins championships
Penguins will pit star power up front against blue line, goaltending of Predators
One team can repeat, making a claim as a modern-day NHL dynasty. The other can take the Stanley Cup to places it has never been.
One team has Sidney Crosby, Canada’s favourite hockey player who has a chance to eclipse Mario Lemieux in the annals of hockey history, and Evgeni Malkin, who can also eclipse Lemieux but somehow remains overlooked and underrated in hockey’s annals.
The other team has P.K. Subban, the favourite castaway from the Montreal Canadiens and a former Norris Trophy winner who somehow isn’t even the best defenceman on his club.
The Stanley Cup final, featuring the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Nashville Predators, has no shortage of storylines: Steeltown vs. Music City; the defending champion against the 16th seed; a franchise that almost moved in 2005 against a franchise that almost moved in 2007.
The Penguins were the better regular-season team, going 50-21-11 and finishing with 111 points. The Predator (41-29-12) lost as many games as they won. But the season series between the teams ended 1-1.
Only one thing is for certain: An American coach born in the Boston area will get his name engraved on the Cup. Will it be Mike Sullivan, from Marshfield, Mass., or Peter Laviolette, from Franklin, Mass.?
Pittsburgh: The Penguins feature the top three scorers in the post-season: Evgeni Malkin (seven goals, 17 assists), Sidney Crosby (seven goals, 13 assists) and Phil Kessel (seven goals, 12 assists) . . . Those three and rookie Jake Guentzel have combined for 79 points in19 games and have scored or assisted on 42 of the Penguins’ 58 goals . . . Old-school warriors like Patric Hornqvist, Matt Cullen and Chris Kunitz blend well with younger, faster players like Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary and Carl Hagelin.
Nashville: Filip Forsberg leads the Predators with 15 points, including eight against the Ducks in the West final . . . With Forsberg on the ice, the Predators have outscored opponents 17-4 during 5-on-5 play . . . Nashville lacks depth at centre, especially with top gun Ryan Johansen gone for the series. . . Austin Watson, Harry Zolnierczyk, Pontus Aberg and Frederick Gaudreau started the year in the AHL. Watson, Aberg and centre Colton Sissons, who captained Milwaukee last season, combined for seven of the Predators’ last nine goals against Anaheim. Edge: Penguins
Pittsburgh: The Penguins’ blue line has been decimated by injuries, but seems to have fared quite well without No. 1 Kris Letang (neck surgery) and is getting healthy at the right time . . . Justin Schultz, who missed most of the East final, has thrived with bigger minutes. Trevor Daley has been a force when healthy.
Nashville: Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi, P.K. Subban, and Mattias Ekholm have combined for 39 points (11goals, 28 assists) in 16 games. They weren’t intimidated by Anaheim’s big centres and will be just as much trouble to Malkin and Crosby . . . The Predators like their defencemen join the rush to put pressure on their opponent. They move the puck well. One pass and they’re in transition. Edge: Predators
Pittsburgh: Matt Murray, who suffered a lower-body injury in the warm-ups before the Penguins’ first playoff game, is back as the starter. Murray, who backstopped Pittsburgh to the Cup last year, is 3-1 with a 1.35 GAA and .946 save percentage since taking over in the East final. He uses his size and challenges shooters to beat him with a good shot. Marc-Andre Fleury, 9-6, 2.56, .924 after faltering in Game 3 against Ottawa, is the best backup in the series.
Nashville: Pekka Rinne’s .941 save percentage is the 12th-best recorded among goalies who have played at least10 games in a single playoff year. Rinne got hot in April, stopping 95 of 99 shots in his final three regularseason games . . . Rinne, however, is 1-5-2 with a 3.57 goals-against average and .880 save percentage in eight games against Pittsburgh . . . His rebound control is superior and he is a superb puckhandler. Edge: Predators
Pittsburgh: With one Stanley Cup to his name, Mike Sullivan is praised as a decisive, intuitive coach who has players play to their strengths, which endears him to his players. His decisions have shaped the Penguins, pulling Fleury chief among them.
Nashville: Peter Laviolette is in the final for a third time with his third team. The only others to lead the three teams to the Cup final are Scotty Bowman, Mike Keenan and Dick Irvin. So is he an elite coach like those three, or does he wear out his welcome with a loud, barking style that demands a lot of his players? Edge: Penguins
Pittsburgh: Experience. Most of the Penguins have played in a Cup final, and it is the fourth appearance for many of their core.
Nashville: Destiny. The Predators had won a total of three playoff rounds in their history before winning three playoff rounds this season . . . Nashville is the third bottom seed to make the final since 2006. Edge: Even.
Nashville in six.
Pittsburgh forwards Evgeni Malkin, left, Sidney Crosby, right, and Phil Kessel are the Penguins’ leading scorers with a combined 63 playoff points.