The 2017 Stanley Cup Final features an expansion team that took ages to make its first conference final, was saved from relocation and now wins with speed and skill in an arena packed with gold-clad, towel-waving fans.
Of course we're talking about the Pittsburgh Penguins.
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At points in their history, the Penguins haven't been much different than the Nashville Predators have been in theirs. Now they're trying to become the seventh team to win the Cup five times and the first to win it back to back years since the Detroit Red Wings did it in 1998, before the NHL salary cap, while the Predators are trying to win it for the first time.
The best-of-7 series starts in Pittsburgh on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVA Sports). When it is over, the Penguins will have joined an exclusive group, or the Predators will have broken through with the first big-league sports championship in Nashville history. Either way, in the big picture, it will be a heck of a comeback story.
The Penguins joined the NHL in 1967, went bankrupt in 1975 and were saved from relocation. They took 24 seasons to make the Eastern Conference Final. When they made it in 1991, they won the Cup. They won it again in 1992. They went bankrupt again in 1998 and were saved from relocation again in 2007 when they closed a deal for a new arena. They won the Cup in 2009, moved into their new arena in 2010 and won the Cup again last season. Now they are a model franchise.
Video: Mike Sullivan brings the Penguins back to the Final
The Predators joined the League in 1998 and were saved from relocation in 2007. They took 18 seasons to make the Western Conference Final. When they made it this year, they defeated the Anaheim Ducks in six games, setting up this matchup.
Sure, it's Steel City vs. Music City, western Pennsylvania vs. middle Tennessee, sandwiches stuffed with French fries vs. barbecue and hot chicken. It's the defending champions vs. the upstarts, the No. 2 team in the regular season vs. the No. 16 team. It's a team strong at center with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin vs. a team strong on defense with Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm, Roman Josi and P.K. Subban.
But from Jan. 1 through the end of the regular season, the Penguins and Predators each earned the identical number of points (56), though the Penguins played 44 games while the Predators played 46. And in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Predators have gone 12-4, while the Penguins have gone 12-7.
Each team is dealing with a significant loss amid a number of injuries. The Penguins have played throughout the playoffs without Kris Letang, their No. 1 defenseman, and have defeated the Columbus Blue Jackets, Washington Capitals and Ottawa Senators anyway. The Predators lost Ryan Johansen, their No. 1 center, after Game 4 of the conference final because of a left thigh injury. They defeated the Ducks in Games 5 and 6 anyway.
Each team has depth. The Penguins have scoring wings like Phil Kessel and Jake Guentzel; the Predators have Filip Forsberg and James Neal, a former Penguin. The Penguins have a Swede setting screens in front, Patric Hornqvist, a former Predator. The Predators have one too, Viktor Arvidsson.
Each team plays with pace, and each has strong goaltending. Marc-Andre Fleury was the Penguins' most valuable player for two rounds, then was replaced by Matt Murray during the conference final. Fleury won the Cup in 2009; Murray won it last year. Rinne has been the Predators' MVP. He might be the top candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy at this point, leading the League with a 1.70 goals-against average and .941 save percentage (minimum six games played).
Crosby and Malkin have been excellent in these playoffs, and the Penguins have capitalized on enough chances against outstanding goaltenders: Sergei Bobrovsky, Braden Holtby and Craig Anderson. But they haven't seen a top four on defense as good as Nashville's.
The Predators have been able to limit offensive players like Patrick Kane, Vladimir Tarasenko and Ryan Getzlaf. But they haven't seen a one-two punch at center like Crosby and Malkin, and now they will play a full series without Johansen.
Each team has overcome so much in its history, in its season, on its playoff run, and is on the verge of something special. The only thing we know for sure is that the silver chalice will be hoisted by someone in gold.
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