NASHVILLE -- Heading into the Stanley Cup Final, the matchup of the Pittsburgh Penguins forwards against the Nashville Predators forwards appeared to be a lopsided one.
The Penguins have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, two of the top centers in the world, as well as Phil Kessel, a lethal goal-scorer from the wing, and Jake Guentzel, who leads the League with 13 goals in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Predators are missing first-line center Ryan Johansen following season-ending surgery on his left thigh and speedy rookie left wing Kevin Fiala because of a fractured left femur. They have some skilled forwards such as Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson, but as a whole they are an unheralded group.
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Yet through the first four games of the Final, the Predators have outscored the Penguins 13-11, including 9-2 in winning Games 3 and 4 in Nashville. The Penguins forwards have outscored the Predators forwards 11-10, with Guentzel scoring four of the goals, but the matchup has been surprisingly even so far, which is one of the reasons the best-of-7 series is tied 2-2 heading to Pittsburgh for Game 5 on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVA Sports).
"We are who we are with the injuries," Predators coach Peter Laviolette said Tuesday. "Those were tough injuries to have happen. Certainly I think that could give us more depth up front, but guys have stepped up. We have done it by committee. We've done it by guys answering the call."
One of the biggest surprises has been rookie Frederick Gaudreau, who has three goals in the series -- the first three of his NHL career -- including the game-winner in Games 3 and 4. The 24-year-old played nine games during the regular season but was forced into the playoff lineup after Johansen was injured during Game 4 of the Western Conference Final against the Anaheim Ducks.
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Guentzel has done his part for the Penguins, but Crosby didn't score his first goal of the series until Game 4. Malkin has two goals, one in each of the first two games, while Kessel has no goals and one assist.
Meanwhile, the Predators have gotten goals from 11 skaters, including eight forwards, during the Stanley Cup Final. Gaudreau is the only player on the Nashville roster to score more than once.
"All year, different guys have been chipping in," said right wing Craig Smith, who scored on a third-period breakaway in the Predators' 5-1 win in Game 3 on Saturday. "Different guys can score on different nights and you can see there's different heroes stepping up each night."
Arvidsson and Forsberg shared the Predators lead in goals during the regular season with 31, but neither had scored a goal in the Final until the Predators' 4-1 win in Game 4 on Monday. Forsberg's empty-net goal was his first of the series after he led them with 15 points (eight goals, seven assists) in 16 games the first three rounds.
In the playoffs, the Predators have gotten goals from 19 skaters, including 15 forwards. The Philadelphia Flyers set NHL records in the 1987 playoffs by getting goals from 21 skaters and 16 forwards before losing to the Edmonton Oilers in seven games in the Stanley Cup Final.
"[The Penguins] certainly have the fame status, I guess you'd call it, with some of the superstars in their lineup, but we knew we were going to have to step up by committee with some timely goals from maybe some unsuspected guys, like Freddy Gaudreau has three goals this series," Predators center Colton Sissons said. "[Smith] had a big goal the other night. All these guys. That's how we're going to have to match up against them."
By necessity Laviolette shuffled his line combinations after Johansen was injured to put Forsberg and Arvidsson on different lines. That and the decision to put Harry Zolnierczyk and PA Parenteau in the lineup and play them with Gaudreau has given the Predators more balanced scoring the past two games.
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The Predators got one goal from all four lines in Game 4 after three of their lines scored an even-strength goal in Game 3.
"I think that's what it comes down to," Forsberg said. "You need depth. You need secondary and third [line] scoring and even fourth-line scoring if you want to be a successful team. I don't know how many players we've used just throughout this playoff run. Players just come in and out of the lineup and play unbelievable."
Few teams can match the star power the Penguins have at forward with Crosby, Malkin and Kessel, but by pulling together the Predators forwards have held their own so far production-wise.
"There's only one Sidney Crosby," Forsberg said. "We've got Freddy Gaudreau who is playing almost as good right now, but Sidney Crosby is obviously one of the best players that ever played. But at the same time we're not really built like that. We're built as a team where everyone is working for the guy sitting next to you in the locker room. I think that's the biggest mindset that we have, just that everyone has to contribute."