USATSI_10070591_154158418_lowresThe Pittsburgh Penguins will face the Nashville Predators for the Stanley Cup and the series should be a doozy. While the Predators are not generally considered one of hockey’s marquee teams, the franchise from Music City aims to change that with their first shot at the ultimate prize in sports.

The Penguins have seen it all before, but they’ve never faced Nashville in the post-season and could be in for a surprise. They met twice in the regular season and split the series. That doesn’t exactly mean much now, as the Stanley Cup Final offers a clean slate to both teams.

The defending Stanley Cup champs are coming off a long series against the Ottawa Senators and needed every ounce of energy to defeat the upstarts. They took the Senators down with a Game Seven victory in double overtime on Thursday night. They also required seven games to knock off the Washington Capitals in the second round.

Nashville swept the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round and immediately established themselves as serious contenders. They took down St. Louis in six games and took down the Anaheim Ducks in six games and haven’t faced elimination in these playoffs. They are the third bottom seed to make it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final since 2006, when the Edmonton Oilers lost to the Carolina Hurricanes.

Offence

Sidney Crosby continues to dominate for the Penguins. Something happens when he steps on the ice and decides to make a game-winning play. Ask the Senators. The 29-year-old has 20 points in 18 post-season games this time around, including seven goals and 13 assists. He has four goals on the power play, but he’s not impervious to injury.

Evgeni Malkin has 24 points in the playoffs, including seven goals and 17 assists. He has 10 points – all assists – on the power play. He has 51 shots on goal and has been at the middle of some seriously big plays. He even clashed with Phil Kessel, which only made him better and led to some offensive opportunities against the frustrating Senators.

Speaking of Kessel, he can come alive too. Don Cherry’s favourite Penguin has 19 points in 19 post-season games, including seven goals and a dozen helpers. Five of his seven goals have been power play goals and he’s proven an ability to take over a game, as he did when he turned on the jets against the Senators in Game Seven.

The Predators may be without Ryan Johansen down the middle, but they’ve got some auxiliary firepower. Like the Senators, offence won’t win the series for Nashville. But like the Senators, they could use their defence to wear down Pittsburgh’s forwards. And unlike the Senators, they can activate that defence to score some goals.

Viktor Arvidsson can put the puck in the net. He has 10 playoff points so far, including two goals and eight assists. He has a goal on the power play and can fuel the attack up front with Filip Forsberg. Forsberg has 15 points in 16 games, including eight goals and seven assists. He has a power play goal and skated for more than 20 minutes in numerous games against the Ducks.

James Neal has come alive as of late, with five goals and a helper in the second and third rounds of this year’s playoffs. The former Penguin gives Nashville an industrious veteran and some padding down the line, which will come in handy if this series turns into a depth-matching contest. Speaking of depth, Colton Sissons gives Nashville more options. The 23-year-old has 10 points in 15 games.

Defence

The Penguins are still making do without Kris Letang and it’s transformed their game into a solid team effort. Players like Justin Schultz have stepped into the margins, assuming bigger roles. And Schultz has been a big part of Pittsburgh’s success. He has 10 points in 15 post-season games, including two goals on the power play, and can quarterback the point to propel the attack.

Trevor Daley is another difference maker for the Penguins. He missed four games with a lower body injury, but he’s been playing responsible hockey in his own end. He also has three points in 15 games, including a power play goal. He skated for nearly 28 minutes in Game Seven against the Senators and will eat up ice time against Nashville.

Mark Streit may not be the focal point of the Penguins’ defence, but he’s made his way onto the top power play unit and can dish the puck. The 39-year-old could well be an important part of Pittsburgh’s effort to win it all, which would be a nice cap on a nice career for the blueliner.

Nashville’s defence is the stuff of legend. P.K. Subban is still the new addition in town, but he’s got to be loving this. With Shea Weber and the Canadiens out of the running, Subban’s chance to win it all would be sweet justification that he’s in the right place. The 28-year-old has 10 points in 16 post-season games, including five points on the power play.

Roman Josi also has 10 points in 16 playoff games, including five goals and five assists. He has three points on the power play and 52 shots on goal. He approached a half hour of ice time a few times against Anaheim in the previous round and will be an integral component when it comes to driving Nashville’s attack. Obviously.

Ryan Ellis has cooled off, but he still has a lot he can bring to the table. He has 11 points in 16 playoff games and averages about 24 minutes of ice time a game. He can crack the shot in front the point, making him a power play asset. And he’s responsible in his own end.

Goaltending

The Penguins have made it work, even in the face of adversity, and that’s led to some creativity in goal. Marc-Andre Fleury made his gallant return after Matt Murray went down in ahead of Game One of the post-season, but Murray’s been back in the tank since Fleury’s fumbling against Ottawa. Has this been a problem for Pittsburgh? Hardly.

Murray is 3-1 with a 1.35 goals against average and a .946 save percentage. Fleury is 9-6 with a 2.56 goals against average and a .924 save percentage. The Penguins will ride the hot hand against the Predators, but both men will have earned it if Pittsburgh takes home the Cup.

Pekka Rinne has been sturdy and consistent for the Predators, to say the least. He’s a shoe-in for the Conn Smythe Trophy if Nashville takes home the Cup and may even win it if his team doesn’t take home hockey’s ultimate prize. He’s 12-4 in these playoffs, with a 1.70 goals against average and a .941 save percentage. He also has two shutouts.

Juuse Saros is on tap if something happens to Rinne. The Finnish netminder reads shooters well and is 10-8-3 in the regular season, with a .923 save percentage and a 2.35 goals against average. He has a shutout in the regular season, but this is Rinne’s show.

Who Will Win

There are several ways to approach this series. Pittsburgh has been dominant in the faceoff circle, which means they could drive possession and generate more offensive chances. On the other hand, Nashville is potentially the stronger defensive team and could force neutral zone turnovers with an active defence.

On the other hand, the Penguins adapted to the Kanata Wall and played chip-and-chase hockey to force action in the corners. From there, they elevated to one-timers and shots through traffic to test Craig Anderson. The Predators can challenge that attack and dig pucks out of their own zone, forcing their speedy forwards into the offensive end.

Anything can happen. Anything will happen. With the Cup on the line, matchups will be important and the Penguins will look to their famous depth to exhaust Nashville’s top pairings. The Predators have the goaltending edge, though, and that could count for a lot if they can pull ahead of Pittsburgh on the scoreboard.

My call: Nashville in seven.

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