The Pittsburgh Penguins are chasing history. More than the 2017 Stanley Cup, the Penguins have a chance to be the first team in the salary cap era to repeat as champions. The Nashville Predators, conversely, have just one player with Stanley Cup Final experience (Mike Fisher), though Predators coach Peter Laviolette is making is third Final appearance.
The Penguins had one of the toughest paths to this point, in history. The Penguins faced the fourth best team in the NHL and a punishing President’s Trophy winner, just to advance to the Eastern Conference Final.
Meanwhile, the Predators finished the regular season outside the top 10. The Predators rolled through a thin Chicago team, a structured-talented-but usually inefficient St. Louis Blues, and survived Anaheim with great defense and timely goals. In the Western Conference clincher, the Predators were soundly outplayed but got the game winning goal (and hat trick) from grinder Colton Sissons with six minutes remaining.
Nashville survived Anaheim much like the Penguins survived Washington, in round 2.
Pens Who Will Make a Difference
Officiating could play a large role in the series. Will Nashville be allowed to trap and interfere, in order to nullify the Penguins top lines? If so, Sidney Crosby will again be recognized for great hockey but not much on the score sheet (the universe’s counterbalance to Phil Kessel).
Sidney Crosby: Gee, I picked the best player in the world. Tough, eh? Ryan Getzlaf was able to make hay against the Predators, because they did not aggressively foul the center. If Nashville chooses to play hockey against Crosby, it may not matter how well the Predators top pairing, Roman Josi-Ryan Ellis, play. Since the Predators are missing Ryan Johansen, the duty to check Crosby could fall to Calle Jarnkrok.
Advantage Crosby. BIG advantage.
Interestingly, it appears Jake Guentzel has not only been removed from Crosby’s line, he’s been removed from the lineup for Game 1. Guentzel has, perhaps, hit the rookie wall. His offensive production has disappeared and his game has suffered, recently. As Conor Sheary used the couple game break to rejuvenate, so too must Guentzel if he is scratched.
Patric Hornqvist: The crazy Swede skated with the Penguins fourth line and top power play unit, Sunday. Hornqvist didn’t appear to be limited, despite persistent rumours of a broken hand.
The Penguins power killed their momentum in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final, but scored in its only chance in Game 7. Justin Schultz’ return was a big difference. However, if or when the Predators clog the offensive box, there aren’t many better players in the league than Hornqvist who are able to create space and havoc in front of the net.
Penguins 4th Line: With the depleted Predators forward crew, the Penguins bottom six should be able to create opportunities. Head coach Mike Sullivan figures to shuffle the lines throughout the series based on player’s jump, but Carl Hagelin, Matt Cullen and Patric Hornqvist could comprise one of the great 4th lines in Penguins history.
Hornqvist figures to elevate lines as he gains stride and health, so figure Rowney to also get space on the line.
Tip–look for the Penguins to cycle with aggression against the Predators, in order to wear down their defense. Sunday, the bottom six forwards talked about their job to get the puck in deep and try to wear down the Predators blue-liners.
Predators Difference Makers:
Roman Josi: You may immediately think P.K. Subban. However, the bigger threat is Roman Josi, who scored 49 points in the regular season and has five goals, 11 points in the playoffs. Josi’s defensive partner, Ryan Ellis, has 10 post-season points.
Pekka Rinne: Rinne has been a brickwall in the playoffs. The big netminder is moving well, seeing the puck well, has an impressive .941 save percentage and 1.70 Goals Against Average.
In short, the Penguins may have to win a couple games by getting a second goal. Rinne has been spectacular.
Austin Watson: Watson is one of the big hitters in the NHL. Not only frequency but heaviness. The Penguins Achilles heal in the playoff run has been susceptibility to physical players. Tom Wilson of the Washington Capitals and Dion Phaneuf of the Ottawa Senators each nearly derailed the Penguins.
Watson could bring that element to the Final.
Preds Depth: Colton Sisson had 10 points in the regular season and only 42 shots in 58 games. The 6-1 200 pound has 10 points in the playoffs, including the WCF Game 6 hat trick. How good is Sisson, really? We’re about to find out.
X’s and O’s: Nashville’s Dual Systems
Laviolette is traditionally an uptempo, aggressive forecheck coach. For most of the regular season, the Predators used a two forechecker system. They were aggressive.
In the 2017 playoffs, he has adroitly altered his strategy based on game flow, opportunity and opponent.
Now, the Predators alternate between a passive 1-3-1 and their forecheck. For example, here is a few minute window of Game 6 of the Western Conference Final. Note the passive 1-3-1 trap, early in the game, as the Ducks have momentum:
The Nashville Predators got an early, ugly goal as Austin Watson’s shot caromed off a defenseman and behind goalie Jonathan Bernier. And, the feel of the game changed. Note the Predators change as they go to two forecheckers to capitalize on the momentum:
The game settled down towards the middle of the first period. Anaheim again began to create chances, and Nashville dropped back into the neutral zone. Watch the trap and counter-attack on this one:
Within a span of 7 minutes, the Predators volleyed back and forth between trap and forecheck. They forced the Ducks to read and react and prevented the Ducks from seizing momentum.
The Predators are not a great trapping team. They use it to mixed results and without their top center, Johansen to play hard defense and offense, the Ducks adjusted and dominated much of Game 6. Rinne was the difference.
The Penguins solved the Senators trap, which forced Ottawa into retreat. It’s hard to make a case the Predators could do better, so look for the Predators to come at the Penguins patchwork defense with everything. If the Predators don’t bring the forecheck to start the series, a few Penguins goals could force them into it.
Strength vs. Strength. It could be great hockey, with thrilling chances.
It could also wind up being a goaltending battle–not a goalie duel with few goals, but a battle who can make more big saves. Rinne is playing on the next level and that could be an advantage for the Predators. It could force Murray to raise his game from solid to spectacular.
Ultimately, the Predators chances rest on their depth forwards being able to generate offense; Jarnkrok, Sissons, and Pontus Aberg. The Penguins have to like those chances.
If the Pens crack Rinne, it could be over in Game 5…on home ice. If they can’t solve Rinne…things will be dicey.
Pens in 6.