NASHVILLE -- The Nashville Predators had a sense of relief and purpose Friday when they practiced for the first time since finding out they will play the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2017 Stanley Cup Final.
"It's good to have the opponent in our head and think about it for a bit," defenseman Mattias Ekholm said after a spirited practice. "I think it is going to be a great matchup."
Game 1 of the best-of-7 Final is in Pittsburgh on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, CBC, TVA Sports).
The Penguins, the defending Stanley Cup champions, reached their second straight Final with a 3-2, double-overtime victory against the Ottawa Senators in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final on Thursday. Most, if not all, of the Predators watched the game, both as hockey fans as well as professionals looking for any possible edge against a future opponent.
"It was a great hockey game," defenseman Ryan Ellis said. "Now, it's just another tough team, another tough task at hand. Obviously, we only get to see them twice a year, so we will have to brush up on their systems."
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Nashville split the regular-season games against Pittsburgh, winning 5-1 in Nashville on Oct. 22 and losing 4-2 in Pittsburgh on Jan. 31.
Almost four months have passed since they last played each other, and both the Predators and Penguins are far different now.
The players understand that. As the Predators began breaking down tape on Friday, many concluded that their closest comparable playoff opponent to the Penguins was the Chicago Blackhawks, saying those two teams have similar speed. Nashville swept Chicago in the Western Conference First Round.
The Predators then played the St. Louis Blues and the Anaheim Ducks in two physical series. Nashville won each in six games.
"St. Louis was heavy and Anaheim was super heavy," Ekholm said. "Chicago is more like [Pittsburgh]. [The Blackhawks] have three really skilled lines up front and they can do damage in the offensive zone and I think Pittsburgh is built the same way.
"The fact that we swept the Blackhawks is a good thing, I would say. I look forward to it, I think it is going to be a great series, it's going to go deep and it is going to get down to really small details and who can execute their system to the best of their abilities. [That team] is going to take the Cup home."
Nashville used its top four defensemen to neutralize the three-line attack of the Blackhawks. Ekholm and P.K. Subban handled the line anchored by right wing Patrick Kane, and Ellis and Roman Josi drew the majority of the shifts against the line centered by Jonathan Toews.
The Blackhawks, the top seed in the Western Conference, scored three goals in the four games. Toews and Kane each was limited to one goal.
"Much like Chicago, they have a lot of forwards you have to be aware of," Ellis said. "It'll be a fast game."
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No forwards demand more attention than centers Evgeni Malkin, the top scorer in the playoffs with 24 points (seven goals, 17 assists), and Sidney Crosby, who is second with 20 points (seven goals, 13 assists).
The Predators are embracing the challenge of shutting them down.
"Anytime they have their top dogs on the ice, you have to be aware and you have to know where they are and be mentally ready for it," goaltender Pekka Rinne said.
Ellis was one of several Predators players who expressed excitement about facing Crosby and Malkin.
"For me, growing up, you see Sid coming into the League, Malkin and [Penguins forward Phil] Kessel, when you are 15, 16, 17," Ellis said. "You are kind of a fan of all of it and now a chance to play against guys like that, it's exciting."
The Predators can't wait to get started. They will travel to Pittsburgh on Saturday, practice on Sunday and open a fourth series on the road, where they are 3-0 in Game 1.
"I like having a chance to start on the road, being away with the team, staying with the guys at the hotel," Rinne said. "It kind of gets you focused in the right place, you think about the game and there is not so much noise around you.
"It's a good thing for us and it has been working, but obviously [it's a] a new series, new game and we have to treat it as the biggest game of our careers."