The Pittsburgh Penguins and the Nashville Predators will meet in the postseason for the first time ever. This is Pittsburgh's second straight trip to the Stanley Cup Final - and sixth overall - while this is Nashville's first.
The Pens are looking to become the first team since the 1997 and '98 Detroit Red Wings to repeat as Stanley Cup champions. They're the first franchise since the 1967 NHL Expansion to make consecutive Stanley Cup Final appearances on three separate occasions (1991 and '92; 2008 and '09; 2016 and '17).
Here's a look at some of the biggest storylines…
Both teams are missing their most important players. For the Pens, that's defenseman Kris Letang, who has been out since the team announced on April 5 that he would miss 4-to-6 months after surgery to repair a herniated disc in his neck. And for the Preds, that's forward Ryan Johansen, who had to undergo surgery immediately following Game 4 of the Third Round for an acute compartment syndrome in his left thigh.
The Pens have missed Letang, who was arguably their best player in last year's Stanley Cup Final against San Jose, not only in the postseason - they were without him for 41 games of the regular season as well. And they've dealt with numerous other injuries to their battered blue line. But the defensemen who are in the lineup have quietly gone about their business and have gotten the job done so far.
As head coach Mike Sullivan said recently, they're not a perfect group back there by any stretch. But they're playing and competing hard, and Sullivan went on to call them the 'unsung heroes' of the team because of how they keep battling through all of the adversity they face behind a forward group that gets most of the storylines. The Pens are going to need them to continue to find ways to have success. "We're missing Kris Letang, one of the best defensemen in the NHL and not one of us is going to replace him," Justin Schultz said. "It's taken a group effort and we still have one more round to go."
Meanwhile, Johansen was acquired from Columbus in exchange for defenseman Seth Jones last summer to give Nashville a true franchise forward. The 24-year-old has been everything the Preds could have hoped for and he elevated his game in the postseason, leading the team with 13 points in 14 games at the time of his injury. His absence hurts Nashville's depth at center, but Johansen's teammates have stepped up so far. Colton Sissons, who slotted into the No. 1 role, scored a hat trick in Nashville's series-clinching win over Anaheim in Game 6. We'll see if the Preds can continue to produce without their most productive player. "A key word for our hockey club has been 'composure,'" P.K. Subban said about facing adversity. "We've shown that all the way through the playoffs."
STAR FORWARDS VERSUS STAR DEFENSEMEN
The Pens' strength is their forward group, while the Preds' strength is their defensive group. Pittsburgh enters the series as the NHL's best offensive team while Nashville is the best defensive team.
The Pens are loaded with talent up front, and their best players have been that for them over the course of the playoffs. Evgeni Malkin enters this series with an NHL-leading 24 points (7G 17A) in 18 games, while Sidney Crosby (20 points), Phil Kessel (19 points) and Jake Guentzel (16 points) are also among the league leaders. Those players have been putting the puck in the back of the net and helped Pittsburgh's power play be incredibly productive.
Nashville doesn't have a forward group with a lot of star power, especially with Johansen out for the remainder of the playoffs. Filip Forsberg, who's entering the series red-hot with goals in five of his last six games, is the biggest name left. Their star power is on their blue line, as they have arguably the best D corps in the league. And Predators general manager David Poile added to that depth last summer when he acquired dynamic defenseman P.K. Subban from Montreal in exchange for captain Shea Weber.
Subban won the Norris Trophy in 2013 and is such an outstanding skater and puck-mover, and the 28-year-old earns most of the headlines, but but Roman Josi is actually Nashville's top all-around defenseman. The 26-year-old quarterbacks Nashville's first power-play unit and is so good at starting the attack and getting up in the play. Overall, the Pens are going to have a huge challenge with such a mobile unit that can create so much offense from the back end, while the Preds will have their hands full with Pittsburgh's superstar forwards.
After entering the league in 2005 and playing over 500 career regular-season games with Nashville, Pekka Rinne is playing in his first career Stanley Cup Final. The 34-year-old Finn has been, without question, their MVP and the best goaltender of these playoffs.
It all started when Rinne posted back-to-back shutouts in Games 1 and 2 of the First Round en route to a sweep over Chicago. From there, he's just been so calm and steady in the cage - posting a league-leading .941 save percentage and 1.70 goals-against average after three rounds. But while those numbers are terrific, his numbers against the Pens aren't as he is 1-5-2 with a .357 goals-against average and .880 save percentage.
The Pens made a goaltending switch in the last series, starting a now-healthy Matt Murray in Game 4 after he relieved Marc-Andre Fleury - the team's MVP during the first two rounds - in Game 3. It was Murray's first start since April 6 in New Jersey and he turned in a terrific effort, stopping 24 of 26 shots. He continued to play solid and steady from there, helping the Pens advance Stanley Cup Final. Murray, who turned 23 on Thursday, will be the second goalie in NHL history to start in multiple Stanley Cup Finals while still a rookie (Jacques Plante, 3, 1953 55).
The Pens couldn't be more fortunate to have two Stanley Cup-winning goaltenders who both played a part in getting their team to this point, while Nashville's netminder is the main reason his team is here. It will be fun to watch these players in action on the NHL's biggest stage.
HOME ICE ADVANTAGE
The Pens battled hard all season to have home ice, finishing with the second-best regular-season record and ensuring they would have that advantage on every team besides Washington. That will serve them well this series.
The clubs have combined to go 14-4 at home through the first three rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Preds are a league-best 7-1 at home, while the Pens are 7-3. Over the last two postseasons, Pittsburgh is 16-7 while Nashville is 11-3. Since 1991, the Eastern Conference has held home-ice in the Final 12 times and those teams have gone 9-3.
Despite not being a traditional hockey market, Nashville has done a tremendous job of making the experience off the ice as good as the product on the ice. They've completely embraced country music, as whoever sings the anthem is a huge deal and is kept secret until the moment they walk out onto the ice. So far this postseason, they've had artists like Carrie Underwood (who is married to Preds captain Mike Fisher), Keith Urban, Kelly Clarkson, Trisha Yearwood, Vince Gill, Luke Bryan, Lady Antebellum and Little Big Town. They also have a stage inside the arena for artists to perform live in-game. Overall, it's a phenomenal experience for their passionate fans, who have been waiting a long time for this.
But as fans here know, when you take on Pittsburgh, you take on the whole city. The Pens players can't help but smile when talking about the crowd support from their fans at PPG Paints Arena, which is one of the toughest places to play in the NHL. As Sidney Crosby has said, there's a certain level of confidence they have been able to play with at home, while Brian Dumoulin added, "You feel that energy, you go out there and see the towels waving, it's a cool atmosphere and it's fun to play in." They're going to need their fans more than ever in this last round against a formidable opponent.