This Memorial Day the NHL will put on display Game one of their Stanley Cup Finals series between defending Champions Pittsburgh Penguins and first time Cup Participants, Nashville Predators. Both teams come into the series missing important pieces to their teams, but with plenty left to put on what could be an amazing series. Let’s take a deeper look at the series from the Pittsburgh point of view.
The Pens are looking to repeat which is something that has not happened since Detroit did it in 97-98. Both Detroit and the Pens went to back to back cups in 08-09 and with split outcomes. In this era of free agency and salary cap not to mention how the sport is played and officiated, injuries have become the biggest factor in repeating.
Both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are looking to surpass the feats of the likes of Lemieux and Jagr. Mario went to two Finals and won both in back to back years in 91-92, The 1993 team was even better and should have won but was upset by the Islanders as they went for a three peat. Sid and Geno coming into this Finals will be playing in their 4th Stanley Cup Final Series. That in itself puts them in a special place in NHL history. But if they were to win a third Cup, that puts their accomplishments beyond what their Hall of Fam Predecessors had accomplished. Both have won on nearly every level and have compiled incredible resume’s.
More impressive than getting here, is how they have done so. Without Kris Letang because of injury, then all of the injuries that has ravaged this team since about the 3/4 point of the regular season, it is a wonder how they are here at all. Their ability to overcome the injuries has everything to do with the play and Leadership from Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. One of the major driving forces behind that leadership is the coach Mike Sullivan.
Sullivan came in last year when the Pens and more importantly Sidney Crosby was at their least competitive point. The Penguins were outside of the playoff picture and Sidney Crosby was not only not performing well, he was not producing points or goals at an alarming rate. Then, Sullivan took over and the tide began to change. Sidney Crosby began to play more and more like the best player in the game. There were stretches of time in the previous several seasons where that standard was in question. Sid took that offensive momentum and production along with elavated leadership into the playoffs which culminated in a Stanley Cup victory. And make no mistakes, by the end of the season he was once again the best player in the NHL. And it was not close.
The coach then was faced with the task of getting this team to buy into doing it again. After a long cup run and world championships, the players barely had time to rest. Keeping a team that has won, and multiple times hungry is difficult but that is exactly what Mike Sullivan has done. These players just get out and go to work every game. When someone is lost to injury, which has been a real issue, they have truly bought into the “Next Man Up” theory. He has earned buy in from all of the Wilkes Barre players that he coached to begin last season and now most of those guys are making major contributions.
Then there was his move to replace Marc-Andre Fleury with Matt Murray. All Fleury did to that point was be the best goalie in the playoffs and carry this team at times through the run. He had a rough game, although not all of the goals were his fault, against Ottawa. It was a game that put the Senators up 2-1 in the series in embarrassing fashion. Murray came in after Fleury gave up 4 goals in the first period of that ugly 3rd game of the series. It was the next game that the Sullivan started Fluery and the team responded in a big way. They took 3 of the next 4 games to propel them into the Cup Finals.
With Matt Murray, the Pens get a guy that seems to be in the right position all the time. He is not a goalie that has to rely on acrobatics to get to the puck. Fleury on the other hand, has been very good but relies on his athleticism to overcome his lack of being in the right position all the time. Something else Murray gives this team other than confidence, is a goalie that can handle the puck around the net. One of Marc-Andre Fleury’s biggest issues and probably his only flaw is his inability to make quick decisions with the puck around the net. In all honesty, the team could not go wrong with either goalie and both are Stanley Cup Champions.
Sullivan is always ready to tweak lines trying to find the right combinations. Not to mention, sit and or replace guys to give the team a spark. Because of this, he was able to get huge contributions from players like Jake Guentzel and Carter Rowney from a youth standpoint. For example, Jake Guentzel has not produced a goal in the last handful of games, but he still leads the playoffs with 9 goals scored. He missed many opportunities to increase that total in the last series but don’t expect that to continue.
This Penguins team will come into the series getting Justin Schultz back officially, and more than likely Patric Hornqvist will be on the ice on Monday. As of Saturday morning, that has not been announced but he has been very close to playing in the last two games. They will be at their healthiest point (for this time of year) just in time for the Finals to start. That should work very well for them as they ready.
During the season, the two teams played two games and the home team was victor in both games. The Pens won 4-2 at home, then traveling to Nashville the Predators beat up the Pens 5-1. In the game at Home, the Pens ripped Rinne while the Predators beat up on Marc-Andre Fleury with Condon in the net for the Preds.
Pekka Rinne has been the best goalie in the playoffs since the back to back shutouts in their first series. And although he has played extremely well and that in itself could propel the Predators to a victory, historically the Penguins have been Rinne’s kryptonite. Not only did they score 4 times and beat him at home this year, Rinne is 1-5-2 against the Pens in his history with a save % of .880. His current playoff stats are quite different as he has a save % at .941 and is record overall is 12-4. Which one of these Trends will continue? Your guess is as good as mine. I have read many analysts say that the Predators have the advantage in Nashville’s corner because of the goalie play. What Rinne does not have that Matt Murray has, even at this extremely early portion of Murray’s career is experience in the finals. Experience is extremely important in this round.
If the Penguins are able to put things together and win the series, they will put themselves in some elite company going back to back. Not to mention getting their 5th Stanley Cup in Franchise History.
Here is the upcoming schedule for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. All the coverage will be on the NBC family of Networks.
Game 1: Nashville at Pittsburgh, Monday, May 29, 8 p.m.
Game 2: Nashville at Pittsburgh, Wednesday, May 31, 8 p.m.
Game 3: Pittsburgh at Nashville, Saturday, June 3, 8 p.m.
Game 4: Pittsburgh at Nashville, Monday, June 5, 8 p.m.
*Game 5: Nashville at Pittsburgh, Thursday, June 8, 8 p.m.
*Game 6: Pittsburgh at Nashville, Sunday, June 11, 8 p.m.
*Game 7: Nashville at Pittsburgh, Wednesday, June 14, 8 p.m.