37 minutes and nine seconds. That is how long the Pittsburgh Penguins went without registering a shot on goal in today’s game one of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. Yet, despite registering a measly 12 shots for the game, the Penguins emerged 5-3 victors over the Nashville Predators in a ripping start to this year’s show piece exhibition.
We might be a game late but without further ado, we present our Stanley Cup Final preview.
Story So Far
Though the Nashville Predators have spent the last few years quietly building an elite roster, their road to the Stanley Cup Final can arguably be traced directly back to June 29 2016. It was on this day that the Predators and the Montreal Canadiens stunned the hockey World by pulling the trigger on the biggest trade to hit the NHL for years. The Predators sent their captain, spiritual leader and possessor of the most booming shot in hockey, Shea Weber, to Montreal in exchange for the enigmatic yet supremely talented P.K. Subban. The debates over the virtues of the trade have been raging from the moment it was announced and the science of picking a ‘winner’ from blockbuster trades is often cloudy, but for the Predators there is little doubt that the arrival of Subban has been a catalyst for a season that few could have predicted.
A solid, if unspectacular season saw the Predators finish in a wildcard spot for the second season running and in the playoffs for the third year in a row. Drawn against recent powerhouses and Central division champions Chicago Blackhawks in the first round, many expert predictions saw Nashville falling at the first hurdle. However, against the odds they blew the Blackhawks away sweeping them in four games.
Next up came St Louis Blues, though the Blues provided more of a challenge than Chicago, they could only manage 2 wins and the Predators won it in 6.
The Western Conference Final saw a match up with the Anaheim Ducks, the team the Predators had beaten in the first round of the 2016 playoffs. Once again the Predators were barely tested and they brushed past the Ducks in 6 games meaning that they have made it to the Final in relatively easy 16 games where they will be hoping to do the same to the Penguins.
Three to Watch
The biggest trade arrival to hit the NHL in years has had the sort of season that he might only have dreamed of. A smooth moving defenceman with a laser shot and an eye for a pass, Subban ended the regular season with 40 points in 66 regular season games. Entrusted to be on the ice at the most important moments of games, Subban forms one half of possibly the best defensive pair in the NHL alongside the equally impressive Roman Josi (49 points in 72 games). Averaging almost 26 minutes of ice time through the playoffs so far Subban is guaranteed to be one of the most prominent players in this final series and should be watched closely.
Whilst we are on the subject of significant trades that Nashville has made in recent years, it seems almost unbelievable that they were able to land the super Swede, Filip Forsberg, in exchange for Martin Erat and Micheal Latta.
Forsberg is one of the most dangerous goal scoring wingers in the NHL and whilst his regular season was not quite as impressive as last year (58 points in 82 games) he has been excellent in these playoffs with 15 points including eight goals in 17 games.
Aged just 22 Forsberg is now showing the sort of form and ability that had him rated so highly before he was taken with the 11th selection in the 2012 entry draft.
If Forsberg can continue to perform in the final as he has in the rest of the playoffs then he has the potential to be a cup winner for the Predators.
Another talented Swedish forward, 2017 has been a breakout year for Viktor Arvidsson as a 45 point improvement saw him lead the Predators in points during the regular season with 61 in 80 games.
The sort of player that opposition fans have come away from games remarking ‘I didn’t realize he was so good’ Arvidsson has been a sleeper star for a large part of the season but there is no way he can be ignored any more.
Arvidsson has added a further 10 points to his tally in these playoffs and looms as a very important player for this talented Predators team.
Biggest Injury Loss
Having emerged as one of the best young centers in the game, the loss of Johansen to a season ending thigh injury during game 4 of the Western Conference Final against Anaheim had the potential to derail the Predators’ season.
Whilst they seem to have coped so far in his absence, the importance of Johansen to this Nashville side cannot be understated and they are undoubtedly a weaker team in his absence.
Number One Celebrity Fan
Country music superstar Carrie Underwood is not just the wife of Predators captain Mike Fisher, she is also their biggest fan. Expect the cameras to pan to her at any break in play, lets just hope she stays away from the microphone in future.
Biggest Potential Weakness
Despite cruising their way through the playoffs so far, the Predators’ scored on just 18.9% of their power plays in the regular season, good for 16th in the NHL. That figure has dropped to just 18% throughout these playoffs.
These are not numbers to be too alarmed about but for a team that have generally had things their own way in these playoffs they would be hoping to convert on more of their man advantages.
The Story So Far
For reigning champions Pittsburgh, their defence of the cup they won in a 6 game series against San Jose this time last year has gone as well as they could have hoped. Finishing second in the extremely competitive Metropolitan division behind only the Washington Capitals, the Penguins shrugged off injuries to key players such as Kris Letang and superstar Sidney Crosby to qualify for the playoffs at a canter.
Things have not been quite as straight forward through these playoffs though. Round one was a comfortable win in five games against the Columbus Blue Jackets, however, round two saw the Capitals take them to seven games, and Crosby suffered yet another scary concussion.
That seven game battle was followed up by another, unexpected seven game war against the plucky Ottawa Senators. The Sens managing to take the series all the way to double overtime in game seven before finally succumbing to defeat.
As previously mentioned, the Penguins secured game one of this Final series on home ice despite a less than stellar performance and they will need to improve to lift the cup again.
Three to Watch
Who else could it be? Despite the challenge from young pretenders Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews, Crosby is still the best center in the game and his performances act as a barometer for the Penguins as a whole. When Crosby fires, so do Pittsburgh.
Injuries have once again played their part in limiting Crosby’s ice time, most concerning is the regularity that he seems to suffer concussions. However, in the 75 regular season games he played, Crosby was exceptional, ending the season with 89 points.
Luckily for the Penguins the head injury Crosby sustained against the Capitals saw him miss just one game and his form in the playoffs has been a continuation of his regular season form (22 points in 19 games).
Conn Smythe trophy winner (playoffs MVP) as the Penguins won the cup last year, Crosby is in similar form again and if the Penguins are to win the cup this year, you expect that they need Crosby to do enough in this series to ensure his name is on the trophy again.
The Penguins have a number of potential game winners in their ranks, Evgeny Malkin could be the second best player in the NHL behind Crosby and break out star Jake Guentzel has had an incredible playoffs so far but Phil Kessel is the man you would want with the puck on the end of his stick in game seven overtime.
After bouncing around the Penguins line up in the first year following the trade to land him from Toronto Maple Leafs, Kessel is now very comfortable on the Penguins second line with Brian Rust and Malkin.
Blessed with the best snap shot in hockey and deceptive pace and power, Kessel is an old-time classic sniper. Don’t close your eyes when he has the puck at the hash marks or by the time you open them it will be in the back of the net.
The story of the Penguins goal tending has been a fascinating one. Injured in the warm ups before game one of the playoffs, Murray, the man who back stopped the Penguins to a cup last year, was kept out of the playoffs for the first 15 games. In which his replacement and more senior figure Marc Andre Fleury was in league best form leaving the Penguins with a very difficult decision to make when Murray regained fitness.
Ultimately, Murray came in for game three of the Eastern Conference Final against Ottawa and won three of the remaining four games to help his side reach the final.
In the six games since Murray returned to the line up he has posted a save percentage of .936 a figure that would be good enough for best in the NHL over the regular season for all goalies that have played six or more games so it is safe to say he is in good touch.
With the firepower that the Predators have in their line up Murray needs to be at his best for the Penguins to win the cup and signs are that he could well be there.
Biggest Injury Loss
Remarkably, for a team that has suffered more than their fair share of injuries through these playoffs, the Penguins are now, relatively injury free. Patrick Hornqvist returned in game one leaving just Kris Letang of the senior players remaining on the injury list.
Having said that, Letang has been a massive loss to the Penguins, his elite skating from the defensive zone and ability to create play cannot be directly replaced. Instead the Penguins are reliant on solid team defence and sensible play from their defensive pairings. Veteran Ron Hainsey and Brian Dumoulin are being leaned on more than most and are standing up to the challenge.
Number One Celebrity Fan
For a team with a such a strong recent record, there are surprisingly few famous Penguins fans, Google tells me Russel Crowe is a fan but I suspect he just likes Penguins, not ‘the’ Penguins.
That leaves us with former WWE superstar Shawn Michaels. Let’s face it, who wouldn’t want the Heartbreak Kid in their corner?
Biggest Potential Weakness
A contentious issue among the hockey analytics community is the level of impact that faceoff wins have on a game of hockey. Old school style of commentators would have you believe that it is a vital part of hockey and winning faceoffs is key to winning hockey games. Modern, statistical driven analysts argue that, on the evidence, there is little correlation between winning faceoffs and winning hockey games.
Depending on which way you lean, faceoffs could be a weakness for the Penguins given that they are only winning c.47% of their faceoffs this season.
Given the relative strengths of the two teams this promises to be an intriguing Stanley Cup Final.
The Penguins have had to battle a lot harder to get to this point and could be feeling the strain but possess incredible offensive talent and elite goal tending.
Nashville have had an easier run to the final and are built upon an excellent defence but are weaker for the loss of Ryan Johansen and don’t have the same experience to draw on as the Penguins.
Prediction: Pittsburgh Penguins in 7 games
Let me know your thoughts in the comments