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Penguins vs. Predators playoff preview

Pittsburgh trying to win Stanley Cup in back-to-back years; Nashville in Final for first time

by Shawn P. Roarke @sroarke_nhl / Director of Editorial

Pittsburgh Penguins (M2) vs. Nashville Predators (WC2)

Season series: Tied 1-1-0

Last playoff meeting: None


How they got here 

The Pittsburgh Penguins, the defending Stanley Cup champion, won their second straight Game 7 in the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs on Thursday, defeating the Ottawa Senators 3-2 in the second overtime to win the Eastern Conference Final. Pittsburgh also needed seven games to defeat the Washington Capitals in the second round.

Forward Chris Kunitz scored his first two goals of the postseason, including the game-winner, in Game 7 against the Senators. It was the first conference final to last more than one overtime since 1994, when the New York Rangers defeated the New Jersey Devils in the second overtime.

Video: Hradek previews Cup Final - Penguins vs. Predators

Penguins center Evgeni Malkin leads the NHL with 24 points (seven goals, 17 assists) in 19 postseason games. Captain Sidney Crosby is No. 2 with 20 points (seven goals, 13 assists). Phil Kessel is tied for third (Ryan Getzlaf, Anaheim Ducks) with 19 points (seven goals, 12 assists).

Goaltender Matt Murray, who regained the starting job after Marc-Andre Fleury faltered in Game 3 against Ottawa, is 3-1 with a 1.35 goals-against average and .946 save percentage in five games, including starts in Games 4-7 against Ottawa.

The Predators are in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time. They eliminated the Anaheim Ducks in six games in the Western Conference Final after knocking off the St. Louis Blues in six games in the second round and sweeping the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round. The Predators have yet to face an elimination game in the 2017 playoffs.

Nashville, the second wild card from the Western Conference, is the third bottom seed to make a Stanley Cup Final since 2006. The Los Angeles Kings won the Cup in 2012, and the Edmonton Oilers lost to the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 7 in the 2006 Final.

Predators goalie Pekka Rinne has a .941 save percentage, allowing 28 goals on 474 shots, and a 1.71 goals-against average in 16 games. Filip Forsberg leads Nashville with 15 points (eight goals, seven assists). He had eight points against the Ducks. Ryan Ellis (four goals, seven assists) is third on the Predators with 11 points. Center Ryan Johansen, whose 13 points (three goals, 10 assists) are second on Nashville, is out for the remainder of the playoffs after having emergency surgery for a thigh injury following Game 4 of the conference final.

The best-of-7 series begins at PPG Paints Arena on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, CBC, TVA Sports).

Video: Previewing the Predators-Penguins Stanley Cup Final


5 storylines

Who's next? The Predators have used a hero-by-committee approach to get to this point. Can they keep it up? Center Colton Sissons, moved up in the lineup after injuries to Johansen and captain Mike Fisher, scored three goals in the Game 6 victory against Anaheim. In Nashville's 12 victories, 10 players have game-winning goals. Pittsburgh has had eight players score its 12 game-winning goals.

Experience factor: The Penguins won the Stanley Cup last season, and several of their core players also won in 2009. Nashville has never played a Stanley Cup Final game and only one player, Fisher, has experience in a Final; he played for Ottawa in 2007 in a five-game loss to Anaheim. Pittsburgh has seven players with more than 100 games of postseason experience (Crosby, Malkin, Kunitz, Matt Cullen, Carl Hagelin, Marc-Andre Fleury and injured defenseman Kris Letang); Nashville has one (Fisher).

Power surge: The Penguins have a clear advantage on the power play. They are converting on 25 percent of power plays during the playoffs (14-for-56) and went 5-for-9 in the final four games against the Senators. Nashville is 7-for-47 (14.9 percent) with the man-advantage. However, the Predators are good at staying out of the box, allowing opponents an average of three power plays per game.

Video: Crosby stuffs in clutch power-play goal in Game 4

Rest is best: The Predators have been off since eliminating the Ducks on Monday. The Penguins played Thursday. Not only have the Predators had three more days off this week, they've also have had more time off than the Penguins after each of the first two rounds. Nashville needed four games to win in the first round and six to win the second. Pittsburgh took five and seven, respectively.

Match game: The Penguins are a difficult team to defend because they have two of the top centers in the NHL, Malkin and Crosby. The Predators are better equipped than most teams to handle that because they have four elite defensemen. The pair of P.K. Subban and Mattias Ekholm has drawn the assignment against the top line in each of the first three rounds. This time, they likely will get the Malkin assignment, leaving Ellis and Roman Josi to go against Crosby's line.


By the numbers

13: Games in which Pittsburgh has scored first this postseason; it has won 11 for a .846 winning percentage. Nashville has scored first nine times, winning seven (.778).

51.0: Pittsburgh's winning percentage on faceoffs, third-best among the eight teams to make it past the first round. Nashville won 50.0 percent through three rounds but could struggle without its top faceoff man (Johansen, 54.4 percent).

1,040: Combined hits by the Penguins (568) and Predators (472) in the playoffs. Nashville's Austin Watson leads all players with 81. Pittsburgh forward Carter Rowney is No. 4 (57), and forward Scott Wilson is tied for 10th (48).


In the spotlight

Penguins: Jake Guentzel, forward -- Guentzel is tied for the postseason lead with nine goals but has not scored since Game 6 of the second round against Washington. He has three assists and 14 shots in the past eight games.

Video: WSH@PIT, Gm6: Guentzel nets Crosby's quick feed

Predators: James Neal, right wing -- Neal has five goals this postseason; all have come in the past 11 games, and two were game-winners. Neal played for the Penguins from 2010-14, scoring 89 regular-season goals.

Video: NSH@ANA, Gm2: Neal extends lead, ties club record


Keys to victory

Penguins: Get traffic in front. The Penguins had trouble solving Ottawa goaltender Craig Anderson; they were limited to one goal in four of the seven games. Rinne is just as tough, so Pittsburgh will need to compromise his ability to track the puck. The series-winning goal against Ottawa, a midrange shot from Kunitz with traffic in front, should be the blueprint.

Predators: Play from ahead. The Predators have yet to lose in a game they've led after the second period, going 7-0. Nashville's game plan works best when the opponent is chasing the game, and playing with the lead has been the foundation in each of the Predators' three series wins.

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