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Final: Four Deciding Factors for Preds vs. Penguins

Can Fisher, Smith Return for Nashville? How Does Preds Top Four Stop Crosby, Malkin?

by Thomas Willis @TomAWillis / Digital Manager & Producer

Health of Fisher, Smith: The loss of top centers Ryan Johansen and Mike Fisher before Game Five versus Anaheim had many projecting that the Ducks would be moving on to play in their first Stanley Cup Final since 2007.

Instead, with heroics from Pontus Aberg and Frederick Gaudreau in Game Five and then a hat trick from Colton Sissons, who was bumped to the first line, in Game Six, it was the Predators who moved on to the Cup Final. Now with a six-day gap between Game Six and the opening contest of the Stanley Cup Final, attention turns to if any reinforcements are waiting in the wings for Nashville.

The Predators know they'll be without Johansen and Kevin Fiala for the extent of the postseason, but General Manager David Poile thinks there's a strong possibility his club will receive an influx of talent into their top six. In between the series, the GM said he's "optimistic" both Fisher, who missed Games Five and Six of the conference final, and Craig Smith, who missed the entire conference final, will be able to suit up for Nashville in their series with Pittsburgh.

Back-to-Back: A Game Seven victory over Ottawa made the Penguins the first team to reach consecutive Cup Finals since they did so eight years ago (2008 and 2009).

All the superstar talent is still there for Pittsburgh, as captain Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin lead the club offensively and Matt Murray, after seceding the reins to Marc-Andre Fleury due to injury, is back in net. There is one dynamic missing from the Penguins Cup-winning club of last season with No. 1 defenseman Kris Letang out due to injury, but so far that hasn't slowed down the club at all this postseason.

Like the Chicago Blackhawks, who the Preds faced in Round One, the Penguins have a championship pedigree that can only be developed through winning on the big stage. Pittsburgh has faced elimination twice in their current playoff run, showing an enviable moxie while eliminating the Presidents Trophy-winning Washington Capitals and upstart Senators in Game Sevens.

Can Nashville steal a game on the road from a Pittsburgh club that's 7-3 on home ice in the playoffs and knows the importance of home ice advantage? It will be step one in trying to knock off the current king of the hill.

Zone Entries: The Ducks were frustrated by it, the Blues were slowed by it and the Blackhawks were eliminated because of it.

The Predators' 1-3-1 structure in the neutral zone has been a thorn in each of their opponents' sides, and equally discouraging for the opposition has been the knowledge that as soon as they dump the puck into the zone, Nashville's netminder is behind his net, trapping the rim around the glass and setting it on a tee for the Preds defense. St. Louis and Chicago were left looking befuddled numerous times in their series with Nashville when time after time they couldn't solve how to maintain possession into the offensive zone.

"I think anytime, whether it's a 1-3-1 or a 1-2-2, a 1-4, an 0-5, whatever you want to play in the neutral zone; I think anytime you can get a goaltender that can get out and handle the puck I think it's an incredible advantage," Preds Head Coach Peter Laviolette said prior to Game Six of the conference final. "It's like having an extra defensemen back there that's able to move the puck. So there's some great goalies in the League, not just Pekka, but great goalies that are really good at handling the pucks.

"He's very good at knocking them down. He can get back there. You see how he does it. When he goes back there he uses his whole body and he can get a piece of it."

Top Four vs. Sid, Geno: The loss of Ryan Johansen may be felt the most by Nashville when they try to match up with two of the League's best centers in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

If Mike Fisher is able to return for the series, that's half the problem solved, but that would still leave Colton Sissons or maybe Frederick Gaudreau facing the playoffs' leading scorer in Malkin.

In order to alleviate the threat posed by the Pens' top two centermen it's likely the Preds will rely on their top four defensemen - and specifically the P.K. Subban and Mattias Ekholm pairing - even more.

Nashville General Manager David Poile said the defensive play from Subban was exquisite in the conference final, while Ekholm was heralded by several members of the national media as the Predators' best blueliner in the series. Is Nashville's shutdown duo up to the task? Their performance against the Penguins top scorers should go a long way in determining the next Stanley Cup champion.

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