Of all the teams that started in the 2017 NHL Playoffs, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Nashville Predators have dealt with the most devastating injuries.
For Pittsburgh, they came early as they started without one of their top defensemen in Kris Letang (who will remain unavailable), and goaltender Matt Murray who went down in warm-ups for the opener (he returned to the crease in the Eastern Conference Final). That was followed up with head injuries that threatened both Sidney Crosby and Conor Sheary. However, both returned ahead of schedule.
Currently, the Penguins have a few question marks with regards to Chad Ruhwedel, Patric Hornqvist, and Tom Kuhnhackl. All three remain questionable for Game 1 with an assortment of injuries hampering the trio.
For the Predators, they just seemed to fall like dominoes as each round wore on. The Predators lost Kevin Fiala early in the second round, and most recently they lost Ryan Johansen, their top line center, and Mike Fisher (who could return for Game 1) in the later stages of the Western Conference Final.
For either team, these losses could easily excuse a premature exit given the roles that each man played on their team, but neither team offered up such excuses. They simply put their heads down and kept battling which ultimately led them to the Stanley Cup Final.
One team is returning for the second year in a row, looking to keep the Cup in the Steel City and become the first team to repeat in the salary cap era. The other is making their first appearance in a Cup Final, and eager to prove they aren’t just some fluke after an up and down season and a postseason where they were too often incorrectly cast as the underdog.
Whatever their agenda, this should turn out to be an epic battle between a proven veteran roster that has been down this road before, and a young club that is looking to knock off just one more team.
The Preds have knocked off every team they’ve lined up against, all of whom had better records and higher expectations than this young group. The Penguins are just another hurdle on this journey, and while the Preds certainly respect the Penguins history, they will undoubtedly approach them like they have every other team this postseason. They are in the way, and the Preds intend to make Pittsburgh just another pitstop on this journey. A journey that they hope ends with a Stanley Cup.
The question is, will Pekka Rinne and Matt Murray cancel each other out, and if they do which team has more left in the tank?
Pittsburgh Penguins (50-21-11)
Season Series vs. Nashville Predators (1-1)
Matt Murray took back his crease early in the Eastern Conference Final series against Ottawa and quickly proved that he is up for the task. Marc-Andre Fleury was at times spectacular throughout his postseason run, and even maintained his position once Murray was healthy, but everyone knew Mike Sullivan‘s leash would be short at the first sign of trouble.
While Fleury had a renaissance postseason (perhaps his last in Pittsburgh), Crosby had one of his own. Of course, this is not to say that Crosby has been on the decline, he has been steadily great for many seasons, but in the latter stages of the round against Washington and the series with Ottawa, we have seen some vintage Crosby.
The Crosby we saw before all the concussion conversations started to overshadow the narrative on the man dubbed the best player in the world.
Crosby capped off the series against Ottawa with three goals and three assists, and he will undoubtedly be looking to carry that production forward. Without Johansen, Crosby will certainly look to exploit a huge advantage on the dots.
While the Preds will likely get Fisher back for Game 1, it isn’t likely to turn the tide in terms of matching up on Crosby up front.
Apart from Crosby, the Penguins are loaded with heavy artillery with Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and a solid group of young forwards like Bryan Rust, Sheary, and Jake Guentzel (who currently leads all scorers with nine goals in the postseason).
There should be no shortage of scoring opportunities with this group, but (and this is a big but) they are going to have to battle through one of the most dominant blue lines they or any team has faced throughout the playoffs to earn those shots. The Predators are unlike any team they’ve faced thus far.
The Preds are going to test the strength of the Penguins forward corps, and they will undoubtedly prove a tough task for the Penguins blue line as well. The Pens have at times had to push through injuries on their backend all season, and the playoffs have not been any friendlier in that respect.
Trevor Daley, Ruhwedel, and deadline acquisition Mark Streit have all missed time due to injuries. If any of their blue liners are banged up at all, the Predators will certainly be looking to darken those bruises once again.
The Penguins will have to put their best on display and hope that whatever ailments they are battling through can hold up for another two weeks because Nashville is well rested and ready for war.
Nashville Predators (41-29-12)
Season Series vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (1-1)
The Predators have been the underdog in just about every series thus far, and they’ve proven every critic wrong at every turn. First, they made a veteran Blackhawks team look like a bunch of house leaguers.
Then they went ahead and stopped the Jake Allen train from leaving the station while corralling their top offensive threats. Lastly, they plucked a dominant Anaheim Ducks squad while playing without their top two centers. Nearly everyone had written them off when Johansen and Fisher went down, but the Preds not only beat the Ducks they destroyed them.
So, any thoughts of this being an easier series without Johansen should probably be wiped from the dry erase board. In some ways, perhaps their inexperience at this stage has been a blessing as they don’t have a measuring stick telling them how hard this run should be without their top pivot.
It’s all difficult, but the Preds never really had that chance to sit back and take stock of their losses. They just put their heads down and found a way. That’s how they’ve managed throughout the entire season, and clearly, it’s been working for them.
In season’s past, there has been a lot of discussion about the Preds scoring depth. That’s been wiped off the Preds to do list as well.
Filip Forsberg was knocked a bit last postseason as his scoring dried up, but this postseason has been a new chapter. Forsberg has eight goals and seven assists and has led the charge thus far for the Predators. They’ll need him to continue that without Johansen (their second most effective scorer), but he should have some help from Colton Sissons and Viktor Arvidsson up front.
While much is said about the Predators blue line defensively, it is also worth mentioning these boys can shoot the puck, too. You fall asleep on this blue line anywhere on the ice, and they will wreck havoc.
Ryan Ellis and Roman Josi have 21 points between them in the post season, and they don’t make a more effective pest on the blue line than P.K. Subban. From top to bottom there is only one spot that the Penguins may be able to derail the Preds, and even that may not be enough.
The Preds centermen will have their work cut out for them. They simply don’t have the same impact without Johansen, and it is unclear how Fisher and Calle Jarnkrok will fare against Crosby and Malkin. Fisher is in the later part of his career at 36, and Jarnkrok (25) is still in the early stages of his career, so it will be interesting to see who Peter Laviolette deploys against Crosby.
He could take a platoon approach while waiting until someone rises to the top. Or perhaps, he puts the veteran Fisher in and hopes to offset any disadvantage with their depth across the rest of the ice.
However the center story evolves, there is one player on the ice who can effectively cancel out just about any shortcoming.
He has been nothing short of spectacular this postseason having played in every minute of every game (16). Rinne has pitched two shutouts and carries a ridiculous .941 save percentage (SV%) and 1.70 goals against average (GAA).
Murray currently sits at .946 (SV%) and 1.35 (GAA) with a single shutout, but the sample size is considerably smaller in just four starts and five appearances.
If Rinne can maintain the hot hand, while the Preds blue line continues to batter the opposition and their front lines can carry over the momentum they’ve rolled with all spring the Penguins will have their hands full regardless of any advantage they can muster up the middle.
Stanley’s Moving to the Music City
This very well could turn into an epic showdown between two hot netminders, but you better believe both sides are ready to go to war.
The Predators at this late stage of the playoffs look like the team to beat. While Johansen is a huge loss, the Predators have earned several extra days of rest and as a team they appear to have fewer question marks in terms of overall health. That should play in their favor.
They’ve battled back against some seemingly insurmountable losses without missing a beat, and while they may be tested up the middle, they have the overall depth and strength across the board to get over this one last hurdle.
It will be the biggest hurdle they’ve faced, but their defensive depth and weaponry will be a bigger test for the Pens than any they’ve faced thus far. There will be no parade in Pittsburgh this summer; the Cup will be visiting the Music City instead.