Stanley Cup Finals Preview and Prediction
Another round of the NHL Playoffs has come to an end, and we’re left with only two teams. In the Western Conference, the underdog Nashville Predators have been the surprise of the playoffs this year, taking down Chicago, St. Louis and Anaheim on their path to the Finals. From the Eastern Conference, the Pittsburgh Penguins are looking to be the first back-to-back Stanley Cup Champions since the Red Wings repeated in 1997 & 1998. They beat out Columbus, Washington and Ottawa en route to their shot at the Cup. With Game 1 set for tonight, let’s take a look at the series and I’ll tell you why the Predators are going to stun the defending champs.
How We Got Here
With only two teams remaining, we’re looking at a series that nobody would have predicted before Round 1 started. Facing Chicago, the best team in the Western Conference this season, the Preds were expected to be knocked out easily. Instead, they surprised the hockey world and not only beat the Blackhawks, but swept them while only allowing 3 goals in 4 games including two shutouts. This series wasn’t close, but in the opposite way that people expected.
Round 2 saw the Predators take on the St. Louis Blues, who had just completed a surprising upset of their own against the Minnesota Wild. Once again, the Predators never looked too challenged by their opponent, eliminating the Blues in 6.
Round 3 was Nashville’s biggest challenge so far in these playoffs, as Anaheim never let Nashville get too far ahead. Pekka Rinne was solid all series, especially Game 6 where he made 38 saves on 41 shots, finishing the series with a .925 SV% (172 saves on 186 shots). Despite many injuries, including losing Ryan Johansen for rest of the playoffs, Nashville never looked out of sync. The depth players stepped up, evident by Colton Sissons’ hat trick in Game 6, including the game winner that advanced Nashville to their first Stanley Cup Finals appearance in franchise history.
For Pittsburgh, their appearance in the Finals is less of a surprise given their expectations heading into the playoffs. Finishing 2nd in the regular season standings, behind only the President’s Trophy winner Washington Capitals, the Penguins were looking like they had the potential to repeat as champions.
Their repeat plans seemed to be in jeopardy before puck drop of Game 1 against Columbus, when Matt Murray was injured in warmup. In steps Marc-Andre Fleury, and it seemed like the Penguins were in trouble. Columbus had a strong season in their own right, including a 16 game winning streak earlier in the season, and finished third in the Metropolitan division with 108 points. Despite their best season in franchise history, the Blue Jackets fell flat in the playoffs, losing to the Pens in 5 games. Despite earlier questions about goaltending, Fleury proved that he is still more than capable of being a starter in the NHL.
Round 2 was arguably the most anticipated series of the playoffs, as the Penguins faced off against the Capitals which gave us a new chapter to the Crosby vs. Ovechkin saga. After taking a 3-1 series lead, the Penguins allowed Washington to climb back into the series and force a Game 7. With momentum and home ice advantage, it looked like the Capitals were going to be able to complete the comeback and add Pittsburgh to the list of teams who have blown leads in the past year or so (Golden State, Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Falcons). But when the puck dropped, it seemed like all of that momentum was gone. The Capitals struggled to produce high quality scoring chances, and when the final buzzer sounded it was the Penguins who were heading on to the Conference Finals after a 2-0 Game 7 win.
Despite being heavy favourites over the Senators in Round 3, the series didn’t go exactly how many people had thought it would. Ottawa stunned the hockey world with a Game 1 OT win, stealing away home ice advantage. In Game 3, the Senators lit up Fleury early on, who would be pulled after giving up 4 goals on 9 shots.
Matt Murray would return to start and win Game 4, and hasn’t given up the net since. Game 5 was when the Penguins looked to have finally taken control of the series, with a 7-0 win on home ice. While many expected Pittsburgh to finish the series the next game, Ottawa fought back for a close 2-1 win to push the series to 7. Not only did this series go to a Game 7, but it took double overtime to decide the winner. Eventually, the Penguins managed to break the deadlock, as Chris Kunitz was able to finally end the marathon game with his 2nd of the game and send the Penguins back to the Stanley Cup Finals with a chance to repeat as Champions.
Nashville in 6.
Conn Smythe: Pekka Rinne
The Predators have been the underdog all postseason and have continued to prove that they have what it takes to not only compete with the elite teams, but beat them too.
We’ve seen many times in the playoffs that the most important things are depth, a strong defense, and a hot goalie. This is exactly what Nashville has going for them right now, and is why I believe that they’ll be the 2017 Stanley Cup Champions when the series ends after Game 6 on June 11th.
Nashville’s Top 4 is not only capable of shutting down opponents, but Subban (10), Josi (10) and Ellis (11) are in the top 6 scorers on the team, with Ekholm (8) not far behind. Not that any NHL players need extra motivation to do their job, but I’m sure Subban will be hoping to win a Cup and remind Montreal why they shouldn’t have traded him.
Between the pipes, Rinne has been incredible posting a 1.70 GAA and .941 SV%. When comparing to previous Stanley Cup winners, Rinne’s number are among some of the best. Just last season, Matt Murray led Pittsburgh to a Cup with stats of 2.08 GAA and .923 SV% and the year before Chicago’s Corey Crawford won a Cup with a 2.31 GAA and .924 SV%. This just goes to show how impressive Rinne’s performance has been in these playoffs. If Nashville is going to pull off another upset Rinne will need to steal a game or two for the Preds, and based on his numbers he is more than capable of doing so. Rinne has to be the favourite to win the Conn Smythe if Nashville wins the Cup, and for a goalie who has been one of the best in the league since he became a starter in 2008-2009, the 34 year old will likely be more than deserving of the award.
We’ve seen how Nashville has the depth to roll all four lines and be able to compete. Even though the Predators lost Ryan Johansen and Kevin Fiala for the rest of the playoffs, the role players who are stepping up in their absence have been a big reason why the team has found success. With Colton Sissons, Austin Watson and James Neal playing more meaningful minutes, Nashville has been rolling. The Predators look like nothing can get in their way, not even the defending Stanley Cup Champions, of bringing Lord Stanley home with them to Smashville.