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Stanley Cup Final

Stanley Cup Final matchups: Penguins vs. Predators

Pittsburgh has edge at forward, Nashville holds advantage on defense

by Tom Gulitti @tomgulittinhl / NHL.com Staff Writer

The 2017 Stanley Cup Final is a matchup of two teams trying to make history.

The Pittsburgh Penguins are four wins from becoming the first team to win the Stanley Cup in consecutive years since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998, which would also make Pittsburgh the first repeat champion since the NHL salary cap was implemented prior to the 2005-06 season.

The Nashville Predators are in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since joining the NHL in 1998-99 and are seeking their city's first major professional sports championship.

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

 

[RELATED: Complete Predators vs. Penguins series coverage | NHL.com staff picks for Stanley Cup Final]

 

The Penguins (50-21-11) have home-ice advantage after finishing second in the NHL with 111 points (the Washington Capitals had 118). The Predators (41-29-12) were 16th with 94 points. But the gap isn't as wide those numbers make it appear.

The Predators went 23-13-5 in the second half of the regular season (the Penguins went 24-11-6) and are 12-4 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, sweeping the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round, winning in six games against the St. Louis Blues in the second round, and eliminating the Anaheim Ducks in six games in the Western Conference Final.

The Penguins are 12-7 in the playoffs after defeating the Columbus Blue Jackets in five games in the first round, the Washington Capitals in seven games in the second round, and the Ottawa Senators in seven games in the Eastern Conference Final.

 
FORWARDS

Penguins: No team can match the one-two punch of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin at center. Crosby, the Conn Smythe trophy winner last season and a Hart Trophy finalist this season, ranks second to Malkin with 20 points (seven goals, 13 assists) after scoring an NHL-best 44 goals and tying for second in the League with 89 points during the regular season. Malkin has 24 points (seven goals, 17 assists) this postseason.

Phil Kessel has 19 points (seven goals, 12 assists), and left wing Jake Guentzel has set Pittsburgh rookie records with nine goals and 16 points.

Video: OTT@PIT, Gm5: Kessel nets Crosby's dish for PPG

The Penguins haven't gotten as much depth scoring as they did in the playoffs last season when the third line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Kessel carried them at times. But they have a good complement of speedy forwards who fit their system, including Hagelin, Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary, Scott Wilson and Carter Rowney.

Chris Kunitz, 37, showed he can still contribute in big moments with two goals and an assist, including the winning goal, in a 3-2, double-overtime, Game 7 win against the Senators. If Patric Hornqvist is able to return from an upper-body injury that's sidelined him for the past six games, the former Predators forward can be a nuisance in front of the net with screens and deflections.

Predators: Their depth helped them win the last two games of the Western Conference Final without center Ryan Johansen, who had emergency surgery to treat a left leg injury on May 18. Playing the entire Stanley Cup Final without him will be more difficult.

Johansen, who had 13 points (three goals, 10 assists) in 14 playoff games before getting injured, and 61 points (14 goals, 47 assists) in 82 regular-season games, was acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets in a trade for defenseman Seth Jones on Jan. 6, 2016. Without Johansen, the Predators aren't nearly as strong at center.

They expect to get center Mike Fisher back for Game 1 after he missed the last two games of the Western Conference Final with an undisclosed injury. Colton Sissons was elevated to the center on the first line with Filip Forsberg and Pontus Aberg and scored three goals in the 6-3, series-clinching win against the Ducks.

Video: ANA@NSH, Gm4: Forsberg ties game in final minute

The Predators also have Calle Jarnkrok, Frederik Gaudreau and Vernon Fiddler at center. Their strength offensively is at wing with Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson and former Penguins forward James Neal.

Arvidsson (two goals, eight assists in the playoffs) tied with Forsberg for the Predators' lead with 31 goals and tied with Johansen with 61 points during the regular season. Neal ranked third with 23 goals during the regular season and has five in the playoffs.

Forsberg, 22, has earned the nickname "Mr. Clutch" and leads the Predators with eight goals and 15 points, Nashville playoff records.

Edge: Penguins

 
DEFENSEMEN

Penguins: They have gotten by without their best defenseman, Kris Letang (neck), throughout the playoffs, and survived other injuries with a group that includes Justin Schultz, Olli Maatta, Trevor Daley, Ian Cole, Ron Hainsey and Brian Dumoulin. Chad Ruhwedel (concussion) and Mark Streit filled in when Schultz (upper body) and Daley (lower body) missed time.

Schultz, who leads Penguins defensemen with 10 points (three goals, seven assists), returned after missing four games and had a goal and an assist in Game 7 against the Senators. Maatta elevated his play against the Senators and played a Penguins-high 31:57 in Game 7.

Video: OTT@PIT, Gm7: Schultz rings in wrist shot for PPG

Coach Mike Sullivan has distributed the ice time evenly among the defensemen, with Dumoulin at the top averaging 21:55 and Cole sixth at 19:09.

"This group of defensemen are the unsung heroes of this team," Sullivan said. "They don't get a lot of accolades. They don't show up on ESPN highlight reels, but they just quietly do a decent job back there as far as helping us get out of our end zone, managing the puck the right way, and defending hard when we need them to defend."

Predators: They arguably have the best top four in the NHL with Roman Josi, P.K. Subban, Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis. Josi is averaging 25:56 during the playoffs, followed by Subban at 25:52, Ekholm at 25:34 and Ellis at 23:59.

The third pair of Matt Irwin (11:46) and Yannick Weber (11:13) receives spot duty. The puck-moving skill of Josi, Subban, Ekholm and Ellis allows the Predators to play an up-tempo style that begins with how quickly they can break out of the defensive zone.

Video: ANA@NSH, Gm3: Josi buries PPG for late lead

Ellis has 11 playoff points (four goals, seven assists), second among defenseman (Erik Karlsson of the Senators had 18). Subban (two goals, eight assists) and Josi (five goals, five assists) each has 10 points, and Ekholm has eight (all assists).

Edge: Predators

 
GOALTENDERS

Penguins: Filling in while Matt Murray was sidelined with a lower-body injury, Marc-Andre Fleury was one of the main reasons Pittsburgh was able to survive its injuries on defense in the first two rounds. After a 23-save shutout in a 1-0, Game 2 win against the Senators, Fleury was 9-5-0 with a 2.32 goals-against average, a .931 save percentage and two shutouts in 14 playoff games.

But following a 5-1 loss to the Senators in Game 3, when Fleury was pulled after allowing four goals on nine shots in the opening 12:52, Sullivan decided to switch back to Murray, who recovered from his injury in time to be the backup for Game 7 of the second round.

Video: OTT@PIT, Gm7: Murray denies Turris' wrist shot in OT

In five games, Murray is 3-1 and has stopped 123 of 130 shots for a .946 save percentage, a 1.35 goals-against average and one shutout. At 6-foot-4, 178 pounds, Murray plays big in the net and relies on his positioning but also moves well and hasn't shown any limitations in that area since returning.

He also has experience from winning the Stanley Cup last season, when he was 15-6 with a 2.08 GAA, .923 save percentage and one shutout.

Predators: Pekka Rinne is one of the favorites to win the Conn Smythe Trophy with a 12-4 record, 1.70 GAA, .941 save percentage and two shutouts this postseason.

He made 38 saves in a 6-3, series-clinching, Game 6 win against the Ducks, negating Anaheim's 41-18 advantage in shots on goal. That came after he made 32 saves in a 3-1, Game 5 win. Rinne is adept at coming out of the net to move the puck, which aids his defensemen in breaking out of the defensive zone quickly.

Video: ANA@NSH, Gm6: Rinne shuts down Fowler, Ritchie

Selected by the Predators in the eighth round (No. 258) of the 2004 NHL Draft, Rinne is Nashville's longest-tenured player.

"It's a dream come true, but it's a funny thing, though," the 34-year-old said. "When everything, this is happening around us, you still feel hungry, and now we have a chance to play for the Cup. It's a pretty amazing feeling."

Edge: Even

 
SPECIAL TEAMS

Penguins: Despite missing Letang, their most-skilled offensive defenseman, the power play has continued to excel in the playoffs, converting on 25 percent (14-for-56) after scoring at 23.1 percent during the regular season. It was a difference-maker against the Senators, going 6-for-13 (46.1 percent) over the last five games after going 0-for-6 in the first two.

Schultz scored on their only power play in Game 7 and has leads NHL defensemen with six power-play points (two goals, four assists) in the playoffs. Kessel leads the NHL with five power-play goals and 11 power-play points. Malkin ranks second with 10 power-play points (all assists). Crosby, who is adept at making plays from the right side of the net, has four goals and three assists on the power play.

The penalty kill was exceptional against the Senators, allowing one goal (on a 5-on-3 in Game 6) on 20 times shorthanded (95.0 percent).

Predators: After going 5-for-25 (20.0 percent) on the power play in the first two rounds, they struggled against the Ducks and went 2-for-22 (9.1 percent) with Colin Wilson and Josi scoring the goals. Losing Johansen, who led them with 23 power-play points (four goals, 19 assists) during the regular season will hurt, but getting back Fisher might help.

He tied with Josi for the Predators lead with seven power-play goals during the regular season, but has no points in 14 playoff games. Subban's big shot from the point can be a weapon, and he has five power-play assists in the playoffs.

Video: NSH@ANA, Gm5: Wilson chips in PPG off the post

The Predators were able to overcome their power-play troubles against the Ducks in part because their penalty kill was so good, allowing two goals on 18 times shorthanded (88.9 percent). That included a kill of Josi's delay of game penalty with Game 6 tied 3-3 and 8:03 remaining in the third period. Sissons scored three seconds after Josi exited the penalty box to give the Predators a 4-3 lead.

Edge: Penguins

 
COACHES

Penguins: Sullivan joined elite company by coaching Pittsburgh to the Stanley Cup Final in each of his first two seasons. The only other coaches to do that since the NHL began expansion in 1967-68 were Scotty Bowman (1968, 1969 and 1970 with the St. Louis Blues) and Larry Robinson (2000 and 2001 with the New Jersey Devils).

Since being promoted from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League on Dec. 12, 2015, Sullivan has transformed a team that underachieved in the playoffs since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009 into a resilient and battle-tested group that has won two seven-game series this season. Against the Senators, the 49-year-old Marshfield, Massachusetts native again demonstrated his knack for pushing the right buttons.

Sullivan put Sheary back in the lineup after he was a healthy scratch for two games and started him on the fourth line with Kunitz and Matt Cullen. Sheary set up Kunitz on a 2-on-1 for the first goal. Then, after double-shifting Crosby with Kunitz and Sheary a few times in the second period, Sullivan kept them together for regular shifts and they eventually produced Kunitz's winning goal.

Predators: This will be the first Stanley Cup Final with two United States-born coaches. Laviolette, a 52-year-old Franklin, Massachusetts native, also has won the Stanley Cup, with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006.

He also coached to the Philadelphia Flyers to the Stanley Cup Final in 2010 and is the fourth coach in NHL history to reach the Cup Final with three teams, joining Dick Irvin (Chicago Blackhawks, Toronto Maple Leafs, Detroit Red Wings), Bowman (Blues, Montreal Canadiens, Penguins, Red Wings) and Mike Keenan (Flyers, Blackhawks, New York Rangers).

The Predators never advanced past the second round before this season, and Laviolette has them believing. He put Sissons between Forsberg and Aberg after Johansen was injured; Aberg scored the winning goal in Game 5 against the Ducks, and Sissons had a hat trick in Game 6.

Edge: Even

 
INTANGIBLES

Penguins: The roster includes 18 players who have won the Stanley Cup. Crosby, Malkin and Fleury are seeking their third championship; Kunitz, who also won with the Ducks in 2007, is trying for his fourth.

But none of the Penguins have won the Stanley Cup in consecutive seasons, which has been a motivating factor throughout this season. They are a mentally tough group that has not been discouraged by injuries and did not waver when they let a 3-1 series lead slip away in the second round against the Capitals, or when the Senators twice rebounded with a quick tying goal in Game 7.

Video: OTT@PIT, Gm7: Kunitz wins series in double overtime

Dealing with the physical toll those two grueling series undoubtedly took will be one of the biggest challenges the Penguins face.

"This group of players has played a lot of hockey, but my sense when I'm around them [is] I think it fuels their fire to want to win again," Sullivan said. "The fact that they were able to win last year and now put this team in a position to do it again I think just ignites the fire because of the perspective that they have. They understand how hard it is."

Predators: Fisher is only Nashville player who has been in the Stanley Cup Final (in 2007 with the Senators, who lost to the Ducks in five games).

That inexperience might produce some early nerves, but the Predators have not been intimidated throughout the playoffs, so don't expect them to back down against the defending champions. Few expected Nashville to defeat top-seeded Chicago, and the Predators outscored the Blackhawks 13-3 in the four-game sweep.

The Predators last played Monday, so they will have had a week to let their bumps and bruises heal. The Penguins will have had three days off to recover.

Nashville is 7-1 at home in the playoffs, so if it can find a way to win one of the first two games in Pittsburgh it will have an opportunity to take control of the series at Bridgestone Arena in Games 3 and 4.

Edge: Penguins

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