Destiny Awaits: The Irresistible Force vs. the Immovable Object

(Photo Credit: John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)

It’s hard to believe we’re here again… We’re just hours before the Stanley Cup Final.

The Pittsburgh Penguins begin their quest to become the first repeat Stanley Cup champions in nearly 20 years tonight at PPG Paints Arena.

The series pits the playoff’s highest-scoring team (Pittsburgh) against its top defensive unit (Nashville).

It’s the first time the Predators have advanced to the Stanley Cup Final, while the Penguins return for the sixth time in franchise history.

Regardless of the road to the Stanley Cup Final, both teams have provided its fanbases with quality hockey and plenty of excitement. However, all that matters right now is the race to four wins.

Nashville, while lacking experience has overcome the odds beating three solid teams: Chicago, St. Louis, and Anaheim.  The Pens road hasn’t been easy either. They had to beat two teams with better records, and two Game Sevens and an incredibly hot goalie while playing without several instrumental players due to injury.

It’s a story of The Irresistible Force vs. the Immovable Object… and destiny awaits the winner.


THEY’VE BEEN HERE BEFORE

Experience, is definitely on the side of the Penguins. However, it was also on the side of Chicago and Anaheim… and we all know how that played out for those two teams. That being said, the Pens will need to use its experience to buck the trend against the Preds.

Pittsburgh enters the Stanley Cup Final with 19 of the 25 players they’ve used thus far owning Stanley Cup rings, and 17 of the 25 having appeared in at least one Stanley Cup Final.

According to ESPN Stats and Info, the Penguins’ roster has combined for 156 career Stanley Cup Final games versus just five for Nashville, all by captain Mike Fisher. However, Fisher is recovering from an injury and is a game time decision for Game One tonight in Pittsburgh.

Here is a breakdown of the Stanley Cup experience on Pittsburgh’s roster:

3 Stanley Cup rings (1): Chris Kunitz

2 Stanley Cup rings (4): Marc-Andre Fleury, Matt Cullen, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby

1 Stanley Cup ring (14): Matt Murray, Olli Maatta, Justin Schultz, Trevor Daley, Brian Dumoulin, Ian Cole, Nick Bonino, Bryan Rust, Scott Wilson, Tom Kuhnhackl, Conor Sheary, Carl Hagelin, Patric Hornqvist, Phil Kessel

4th Stanley Cup Final Appearance (4): Chris Kunitz, Marc-Andre Fleury**, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby

3rd Stanley Cup Final Appearance (2): Carl Hagelin, Matt Cullen

2nd Stanley Cup Final Appearance (11): Matt Murray, Olli Maatta, Justin Schultz, Brian Dumoulin, Ian Cole, Nick Bonino, Bryan Rust, Tom Kuhnhackl, Conor Sheary, Patric Hornqvist, Phil Kessel

Stanley Cup Final Debut (8): Chad Ruhwedel, Trevor Daley*, Scott Wilson*, Mark Streit, Ron Hainsey, Carter Rowney, Josh Archibald, Jake Guentzel

*Daley and Wilson were hurt and did not play in the 2016 Stanley Cup Final, hence this being the Cup Final debut for both.

**Played in both the 2008 and ’09 Stanley Cup Final; was the backup netminder in ‘16

***Injured blueliner Kris Letang is a two-time Stanley Cup champion and has appeared in three previous Stanley Cup Finals


DEFENSE FIRST

The Penguins have used eight defensemen in the playoffs, with none averaging more than 22 minutes a night as head coach Mike Sullivan has elected to spread out the minutes with star defender Kris Letang shelved for the remainder of the year due to a herniated disc in his neck.

Nashville’s defensemen are a huge key to their offensive attack, as the Preds’ top-four blueliners – Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi, P.K. Subban and Mattias Ekholm – rank among their top-eight scorers thus far. The Preds blue line will create a huge challenge for the Pens because they can create a ton of offense from the back end.

Nashville’s blue line is capable of playing some big-time minutes and can also produce offense. Subban, Josi, and Ekholm average more than 25 minutes per game. Ellis is averaging nearly 24 minutes per game (23:59). 

The Predators top four defensemen have combined for 11 goals and 39 points in 16 playoff games.

Don’t underestimate Roman Josi. He doesn’t get talked about nearly enough and is the Pred’s best all-around defenseman. During the regular season, he led Nashville defensemen in points (49) and minutes (25:04) and quarterbacks the Pred’s first power-play unit.


GETTING OFFENSIVE
Pittsburgh enters the series as the NHL’s best offensive team.

Evgeni Malkin leads the NHL with 24 points (7G, 17A) in 18 playoff games, while Sidney Crosby (20 points), Phil Kessel (19 points) and Jake Guentzel (16 points) are also among the league leaders. The crazy thing is, Guentzel could be a healthy scratch tonight as he didn’t skate on the four top lines in practice on Sunday. 

Nashville doesn’t have a forward group with a lot of star power, especially with Ryan Johansen out for the remainder of the playoffs. The loss of Johansen means that even more offensive production will fall on the plate of young sniper Filip Forsberg, who tallied a goal and an assist in the Preds’ Game 6 clinching win against Anaheim. Forsberg enters the Stanley Cup Final as both Nashville’s leading scorer, and riding an NHL-playoff-high seven-game point streak (5G, 3A). He also has goals in five of his last six games.

BETWEEN THE PIPES
Coming off a series against one red-hot goaltender – Craig Anderson, the high-powered Penguins’ offense will meet another tough challenge… Pekka Rinne.

Rinne has been the best goaltender in this year’s playoffs. Heading into the SCF, Rinne leads the NHL in playoff wins (12), goals-against average (1.70) and save percentage (.941). He has allowed two goals or fewer 11 times in 15 outings this postseason.

However, history is on the Penguins side against Rinne. In eight career regular-season games against the Penguins, Rinne is just 1-5-2 with a 3.57 goals-against average and an .880 save percentage. His lone win was a relief victory in his first-ever appearance against Pittsburgh back on Jan. 8, 2009.

Since taking over goaltending duties midway through the Eastern Conference Final, Matt Murray has proceeded to go 3-1 with a 1.35 goals-against average and a .946 save percentage in four appearances.

Overall, Murray has posted a stellar 10-2 record in the last two postseasons.

Backing up Murray is Marc-Andre Fleury who was arguably the Penguins’ MVP, winning nine of his 15 starts, and posting a pair of shutouts that included a 29-save blanking in Game 7 of the Second Round against the Washington Capitals at the Verizon Center. No goalie has made 30-plus saves more often this spring than Fleury, who did so nine times. Fleury’s 62 career playoff victories are the most among all active netminders, and they rank 13th in NHL history.


IN THE END, IT DOESN’T EVEN MATTER…
All in all, it should be one of the most entertaining Stanley Cup series in a long time for the NHL. A superstar laden squad versus the proverbial Cinderella team. The Predators have put together an impressive run. It’s honestly been incredibly enjoyable to watch what they’ve been able to do on ice and how the city of Nashville has rallied around its team.

Each series in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is different. Just like every game… You can win 7-0 one day and the next find yourself on the losing end of things… It’s a new beginning. The next four wins is ALL that matters. What happened in the previous series is over… It’s done. Don’t look on past successes, learn from previous failures. Enjoy the ride for what it’s worth. We’re lucky because we’re use to being in this situation. Don’t take it for granted. Be loud. The series can go either way and there are still plenty of questions to be answered.

The Pred’s top four defensemen are surely talented. Can they stop the high-powered Pens? It’s very possible, but not likely. 

Will Rinne give the Pens snipers fits like Craig Anderson did? He’s perfectly capable of that distinction, but I don’t see it happening… The Sens helped Anderson greatly by playing deep in their own zone in front of their keeper, essentially creating a bottleneck in front of Anderson. Nashville plays a different version of the 1-3-1 as Jesse Marshall illustrated earlier this week at the Pensblog. If the Pens continue to be aggressive on the forecheck, they’ll get plenty of quality scoring chances.

Can the Pens defense keep Forsberg and James Neal at bay? That’ll be quite the task.

Will PK Subban be a thorn in the side of Crosby and Malkin? You better believe it.

I don’t expect this Pens team to be involved in a low-scoring series like they were in the Eastern Conference Finals. I’m expecting fireworks.

Pens in 6.


STICK TAPS

  • Chris Kunitz joined Darius Kasparaitis (a player ever Penguins fan in a Washington DC bar should know) as the only players in franchise history to score an overtime goal in Game 7. With the goal, Elias notes that Kunitz became the oldest player (37 years, 241 days old) to score an overtime goal in a Game 7.
  • With four more wins, Kunitz would be the only active player with four Stanley Cups (2007, 09, 16).
  • Pittsburgh is aiming to become the first team since the 1997 and ’98 Detroit Red Wings to repeat as Stanley Cup champion.
  • Mike Sullivan became only the third coach to reach the Stanley Cup Final in his first two seasons with a team since 1968. He joined Larry Robinson (NJD; 2000 & ‘01) and Scotty Bowman (Blues; 1968, ‘69 & ‘70).
  • With a Game 7 win in the 2016 ECF, 2017 SR, and 2017 ECF, Sullivan became the only Penguins coach to win three Game 7s.
  • In the Final, Sullivan will face off against fellow American coach Peter Laviolette. It will pit the first time two coaches from the United States face off in the SCF.
  • Murray is the 1st goalie since Jacques Plante (1953-55) to start a SCF game in multiple years under rookie designation. His 16th career win in Game 4 vs. OTT set a NHL record for playoff wins by a goalie w/a rookie designation.
  • Murray recorded a 16-3-2 record this year at PPG Paints Arena & is 20-4-3 here all-time in the regular season.
  • One of these two head coaches will make history. The coach whose club wins this series will become the first American-born head coach to win two Stanley Cups. As it stands now, the Penguins’ Mike Sullivan and Nashville’s Peter Laviolette are two of six American-born coaches to lead their clubs to championships. The other four American-born head coaches to win the Stanley Cup are Bill Stewart (Chicago, 1938), Bob Johnson (Pittsburgh, 1991), John Tortorella (Tampa Bay, 2004) and Dan Bylsma (Pittsburgh, 2009).