The Stanley Cup Final will start on Monday as the Pittsburgh Penguins will host the Nashville Predators in Game One.
The Penguins were able to defeat the Senators in double overtime in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Final to advance to their second straight Stanley Cup Final. Pittsburgh is looking to become the first team to win back-to-back Stanley Cups since the Detroit Red Wings did it in 1997 and 1998.
Nashville is in their first ever Cup Final after knocking off the Anaheim Ducks in six games. Here is a look at a few big storylines for this year’s Stanley Cup Final.
Stanley Cup Final Preview: Pittsburgh Penguins vs Nashville Predators
The James Neal trade
When Jim Rutherford first became the Penguins general manager after the 2013-14 season, one of the first things he did was trade winger James Neal to the Nashville Predators. Nashville ended up sending Patric Hornqvist in return, resulting in a trade that has worked out perfectly for both teams.
It’s definitely going to be interesting to see how well each player plays against their former team. James Neal had some interesting comments about potentially playing Pittsburgh before the Penguins won Game Seven against the Senators. Neal said (via Brooks Bratten), “I came to a place that wanted me and believed in me and I love it here…we’ll see.”
Neal now has a chance to show the Penguins that he’s got even better since he was traded to the Predators. This series isn’t going to determine who won the trade, but it’ll be great if both of these players go at it and put on a show during this series.
The Hot Goaltending
Sometimes, a hot goaltender is all a team needs to make a deep run in the playoffs. Both starting goaltenders have been amazing for both teams. For Nashville,
For Nashville, Pekka Rinne is playing a lot better than he did in the regular season. He has a 1.70 goals-against average (GAA) and a .941 save percentage (SV%), a significant improvement from his 2.42 GAA and .918 SV% from the regular season.
Rinne is definitely one of the big favorites for the Conn Smythe if the Predators win the Stanley Cup this year. Even though he faced the Blackhawks in the First Round, this will be Rinne’s biggest test of the playoffs as he goes up against Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
The Penguins are also the highest scoring team in the league. Rinne will have to be up to the challenge to stop not only the big guns but the depth forwards Pittsburgh have as well.
Over in Pittsburgh, Marc-Andre Fleury started the first two games of the Eastern Conference Final against the Ottawa Senators. He started Game Three as well but was pulled after he allowed four goals in the first period. Matt Murray took over and has not looked back. It should be noted that the Penguins wouldn’t in the Stanley Cup Final if it weren’t for Fleury’s play. He was incredible in the first two rounds, especially against the Capitals.
Matt Murray was stellar returning from his groin injury, going 3-1 with a 1.35 GAA and a .946 SV% in the final four games against the Senators. It will surely be his net when the series starts on Monday. Murray is trying to win his second consecutive Stanley Cup as a rookie, as he is still considered Calder eligible.
The Center Depth
Many playoff series are won by the depth down the middle of the ice. The Penguins have one of the deepest teams in the league at center, as, after Crosby and Malkin, they have Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen.
Bonino hasn’t been nearly as good as he was last year with just two playoff goals. He’s still a great defensive center but he’s going to have to pick up his offensive production in the Stanley Cup Final.
Cullen is the ageless wonder at 40 as he never seems to slow down. He’s been fantastic on both ends of the rink on the Penguins’ fourth line. If there’s one place where the Pittsburgh has a big advantage in this series, it’s their center depth.
In Nashville, their depth took a major hit when Ryan Johansen went down for the rest of the playoffs. He’s a great offensive player but he also emerged as an amazing two-way player as well.
Mike Fisher, who will be returning from a concussion, is likely to be back in the lineup for Game One. Calle Jarnkrok, Colton Sissons, and Vernon Fiddler would center their three other lines, a significant drop off from the likes of Crosby, Malkin, Bonino, and Cullen.
Colton Sissons had a massive Game Six against the Ducks, but expectations cannot get out of hand. The 23-year old recorded just 10 points in the regular season.
Calle Jarnkrok was much better than Sissons in the regular season but has struggled offensively in the postseason. With just three points in 15 games, asking him to go out against the Malkin line will be a tough task. Luckily for Nashville, they have an amazing defensive that will help Nashville try to shut down Pittsburgh’s centers.
There are so many great storylines, from a potential repeat champion to the Predators first Stanley Cup. Ultimately, it’s hard to go against Mike Sullivan’s Penguins. He is undefeated in seven playoff series behind the bench for Pittsburgh. The Penguins will be the first team to repeat since the 1997-1998 Red Wings, although it is going to be a long series.
Penguins in 7