For the second straight year, Sidney Crosby brings his star power to the Stanley Cup Final. He has been the face of the NHL for about a decade.
He’s also the captain of the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins, a popular public team.
To win the Cup again, Crosby and the Penguins must go through Pekka Rinne, the tough goaltender for the underdog Nashville Predators. Rinne will pose problems for the Penguins.
Here’s a breakdown the series, which opens Monday in Pittsburgh:
Style of play
Pittsburgh’s team strength — aside from a team-wide wealth of playoff experience — is the play and capability of its frontline center positions where Crosby and Evgeni Malkin dominate play and newcomer Jake Guentzel has contributed immediately. The Penguins must rely on goalie Matt Murray to play like he did last year (2.08 GAA), as their defense is the one area of this team in need of improvement. This platoon has been hit hardest by the lack of continuity that injury and shuffling players brings.
Therefore, the Penguins will want to undertake a free skating style of play, one in which they can take the lead then press. Pittsburgh will not want to fall behind the Nashville defensive juggernaut.
The Predators’ strength — aside from tremendous team speed — is that they execute playoff hockey from the goal out, meaning they have Rinne, who is this year’s top minder of the playoffs in net, insulated by the top three sets of defensemen in the game. Injuries to the Predators have diluted the talent in their already-challenged offense, thus Nashville’s offense against the Pittsburgh defense is a critical matchup in this series.
The Predators will utilize a frenetic, physical style of play that complements their overall advantage in team speed to try to jump up on the Penguins and then control the pace of play pressuring the Pittsburgh defense with an aggressive blue line when the Predators are on the offensive attack.
The culture of hockey is to minimize the effect of injury, and there has been no better example of that this postseason than the Penguins, who have said nothing through many team issues. Nonetheless, injuries are bound to impact each team in this series.
Pittsburgh is getting healthier as this playoff run extends, although Kris Letang is a key player who will not return. Still, the Penguins are gradually gaining players, especially on defense, where they are thin in depth of talent.
Nashville center Ryan Johansen is out, as is winger Kevin Fiala. Team captain Mike Fisher is on the ice and perhaps set to return early in this series.
The questions for the Penguins are twofold: First, can they overcome the amount of hockey they have had to play to get here? The Penguins have played 19 full playoff games — and they started five periods of overtime within those three series — while the Predators are here in 16 full games and three periods of OT. Pittsburgh played in back-to-back seven-game series against top-rated NHL playoff teams, the last of which was a double-overtime victory. This is a ton of pressure hockey on a team that is already affected by the attrition of the Stanley Cup tournament. Second, can they score enough goals? The Penguins played a uniquely defensive team in the Ottawa Senators in the last series, but the fact remains that in four games of that series they scored only one goal.
The Predators’ questions revolve around whether they will be overwhelmed by the experience and pressure offense of the Penguins. Also, will the time off allow Rinne to maintain his dynamic level of play (1.81 GAA this postseason)? Can the Nashville defense continue to pressure on offense while they attempt to corral the most dynamic and experienced set of goal scorers in today’s game? These questions will be central in discovering which team will own an advantage as this series progresses.
The Penguins’ positive intangibles are their vast team experience, savvy and determination. This team hoisted Lord Stanley’s Cup last year, and many players were on this team when they hoisted it in 2009. Seven Penguins players sport 100 or more games of playoff experience.
It would be remiss not to mention the phenomenal job coach Mike Sullivan has done for these Penguins. His hire has been as dynamic as any made in the Mario Lemieux regime, and it defines the fact that in today’s game, Pittsburgh is as organizationally sound as any team in the NHL.
For the Predators, only captain Fisher has played in 100 or more playoff games and has Cup experience. Nashville enters this series with a lack of experience but an abundance of fresh legs, and once they re-enter playoff mode they’ll be the faster, quicker and even more physical bunch. With a week of rest and many fewer minutes of ferocious play under their belts, I am quite confident that as this series progresses they will be the far fresher, faster-firing team. Their run deep into the Campbell final series last year earned them a PhD on the importance of fresh legs, and this team has been focused on this opportunity since Game 1 against the Chicago Blackhawks this year.
Predators coach Peter Laviolette is the fourth coach ever to deliver his third team to the Cup Final series, so all may be assured his team will be prepared, focused and willing to challenge the defending champions.
The way to hoist a Stanley Cup is to play from the goal out, and this is the template for the Predators. This year’s playoffs have exemplified that youthful teams featuring exceptional speed (Predators, Oilers, Maple Leafs, Senators and Penguins) own an advantage over those that do not. The Penguins are laden with precision, grit and guile, while the Predators play from Rinne out, have fewer games played, are well rested, sport greater team speed and have a goalie playing the best hockey of his career.
This series is more evenly matched than current minus-160 price indicates. I handicapped the series at Pittsburgh minus-120. Based on home ice, the Penguins should be slight favorites. Therefore, the recommendation is to take every penny of advantage with the Predators plus-150 or better.
Game 1 note: History shows teams in Cup series can have difficulty overcoming more than four to five days of rest. Contrary to popular belief, it takes a team with rest a couple of periods or even a full game to catch up to the team that just finished frenetic playoff hockey. The advantage in Game 1 might reside with the Penguins because of this observation, so only invest in the Predators’ series price at this time.
The plan is to wager a couple of units on the Predators, but only invest one now. If the Penguins do win Game 1, look to take another position on the Predators in this series at even more advantageous odds. In a seven-game series, trust in Nashville’s style of play, team speed and keen focus.
Lou Finocchiaro is a Phoenix-based hockey handicapper. Follow on Twitter: @GambLou.