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Instant Analysis: Preds Face Defending Champs in Final

Nashville Makes First Stanley Cup Final Appearance Looking to Dethrone Defending Champs in Pittsburgh

by Thomas Willis @TomAWillis / Digital Manager & Producer

The Nashville Predators first trip to the Stanley Cup Final will be paired with an opponent making their second consecutive appearance.

The Preds will head to Pittsburgh on Saturday afternoon, where their series with the defending champions will commence on Monday evening. The Penguins went seven games with the Ottawa Senators in the Eastern Conference Final where a 3-2 double overtime victory earned them their second-straight conference crown and the right to defend their 2016 title.

Meanwhile, Nashville emerged victorious in the franchise's first appearance in a conference final, taking out the Anaheim Ducks in six games.

"It's a dream come true," goaltender Pekka Rinne said. "But it's a funny thing, though. With everything that's happening around us, you still feel hungry, and now we have a chance to play for the Cup. It's a pretty amazing feeling. And you've been working for that for a long, long time."

Games Three, Four and Six* will be hosted in Nashville on June 3, 5 and 11, while Games One, Two, Five* and Seven* will be played in Pittsburgh (*if necessary).

Season Series Refresh:

Nashville's regular-season record versus Pittsburgh: 1-1-0

Scoring Leaders:

Goals: Nashville: Viktor Arvidsson, Kevin Fiala, Calle Jarnkrok (2); Pittsburgh: Patric Hornqvist (2)

Assists: Nashville: Filip Forsberg, P.K. Subban (2); Pittsburgh: Scott Wilson (2)

Points: Nashville: Calle Jarnkrok (3); Pittsburgh: Scott Wilson (3)

Video: Arvidsson, Fiala help Predators top Penguins, 5-1

October 22, 2016, at Bridgestone Arena: Predators 5, Penguins 1

With several members of the team stricken with illness, the Predators blasted the Penguins, 5-1, without the services of Mike Fisher, Craig Smith, Colton Sissons and Pekka Rinne, who were all out of the lineup.

Juuse Saros earned his first NHL win, as the Preds scored five unanswered goals to overcome an early deficit. Young forwards Viktor Arvidsson and Kevin Fiala provided the offensive spark as both players tallied twice.

"We could've gone out there and hoped our way through the game or waited for lucky bounces," center Ryan Johansen said. "Every guy in this [locker] room went out there and attacked the game in full force, especially after them scoring a goal like that early on. We kept our composure, and Juuse was phenomenal."

Video: NSH Recap: Predators stall in 4-2 loss to Pens

January 31, 2017, at PPG Paints Arena: Penguins 4, Predators 2

Calle Jarnkrok gave the Predators a 1-0 lead in their only visit to Pittsburgh, but a poor second-period performance provided the two points to the Penguins.

Former Preds forward Patric Hornqvist scored twice in a five-minute span to put the Penguins ahead 4-1 after 40 minutes of play.

"They're a good team, and they're going to make good plays… but for our group [in the second], we had turnovers; we weren't moving our feet," defenseman Ryan Ellis said. "The first and third were good, but the second, we lost it in the second."

"I thought the first period we were good, third period we were good, just that 20 minutes there in the second period, we let off the gas," forward Ryan Johansen said. "Like we always talk about, especially with the losses, you have to play 60 minutes, especially with a team like them. They made us pay there in the second, so that was the game."

Series Analysis: Four Things

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.

X-Factors: Pekka Rinne (Nashville) and Matt Murray (Pittsburgh)

The two goaltenders in the Stanley Cup Final will each share the enormous pressure of backstopping their clubs toward a championship, but they'll be doing so from two very different places. Nashville boasts the NHL's stingiest defense, while the Penguins are No. 1 on offense.

The 34-year-old Pekka Rinne has put up numbers ranking among the all-time NHL's best during the Predators' 2017 playoff run. The Finn's save percentage (.941) and goals-against average (1.70) rank in the Top Five all-time with a minimum of 15 postseason games played.

Rinne and the Predators have also allowed the second fewest goals-against per game (1.81) by a conference champion in the last 10 years (behind the 1.57 by the 2012 Los Angeles Kings). That stinginess on defense paces all teams in this year's playoffs as well.

Matt Murray, on the other hand, has only recently retaken the starter's net in Pittsburgh after a lower-body injury forced him to miss Game One of Round One. Marc-Andre Fleury took over in the crease, leading the Penguins past the Columbus Blue Jackets and Washington Capitals, but when he faltered in the conference final, Head Coach Mike Sullivan turned back to Murray, who led the Penguins to a championship last spring.

The gaudy numbers put up by the 23-year-old, 6-foot-4 netminder have to be taken with a grain of salt, since he's only started four contests in this year's playoffs, but Murray seemed to go right back to being the calming presence the Pens needed when he entered the net last week.

He's also shown he can do it all before: going 9-3 with a .930 save percentage in the 2016 postseason. Plus, the Penguins are putting up offense to spare for Murray so far, connecting for 3.05 goals-for per game.

Which masked man steals a game or two in the Final? Either Rinne or Murray have shown they're more than capable this postseason.

For details on each game of the Stanley Cup Final, including info on giveaways, plaza party start times and where to watch, visit the Predators Playoff Hub.

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