It’s that time of the year! The best of the east and the best of the west compete for the most coveted trophy in all of sports! Once again from the Eastern conference, it’s the Pittsburgh Penguins who battled through a ton of injuries to get back to the finals. From the Western conference, it is the Nashville Predators who have relied on their stellar defense and goaltending to get them to their first ever Stanley Cup Final.
Let’s talk about how these two teams beat out twenty-eight others to get to the finals. We will start with the Penguins, who are looking to win back-to-back Cups. The Penguins finished the regular season with a record of 50-21-11 (111 points), which was good enough for second place in the Metropolitan division. In their first round matchup, they played the Columbus Blue Jackets who were the 3 seed in the Metro. Before game one even started, the Penguins were in trouble when their superstar goalie Matt Murray went down with an injury. Backup Marc-Andre Fleury started game one and had a great outing in a 3-1 win. The Penguins went up 3-0 in the series behind the strong play of Fleury and the red hot Evgeni Malkin. After a minor hiccup in game 4, the Penguins went on to win the series 4-1. Malkin had 11 points in the opening series and was an enormous part of the power play- which was 5 for 15 in round one. We can’t forget about Jake Guentzel who had 5 goals in the series. The Penguins were firing on all cylinders and had a near perfect first round series.
Next up for the defending champs was the President Trophy winning Washington Capitals. The injury bug struck the Penguins again this series. After jumping out to a quick 2-0 series lead on the road, in game 3 disaster struck. The Penguins captain, Sidney Crosby, went down with a concussion. The Penguins would go on to lose that game and the Caps looked to have taken the momentum. In game 4, an unlikely hero named Justin Schultz broke a 2-2 tie in the third for the Penguins to take a 3-1 series lead, even without their captain. Crosby returned for game 5 and the Pens looked poised to take the series, but the Caps had other ideas. With two great efforts from their goaltender Braden Hotlby, the Caps tied the series at 3 and a game 7 was on the way. After a scoreless first, Bryan Rust scored a huge goal in the second period to take a 1-0 lead. Patric Hornqvist all but sealed the deal in the third making it 2-0. The playoff demons could not be exorcised for the Caps and once again, after a great regular season, the playoffs came to an end too early. Once again, the Pens were off to the Eastern Conference finals.
The Penguins were big favorites against Ottawa after upsetting the New York Rangers in 6 games. After splitting game one and two in low scoring affairs, game 3 was a different story. Combining for 4 goals in the first two games, the Senators broke out in game 3. The Sens scored 4 of their 5 goals in the first 15 minutes of period one, ending Fleury’s night. Matt Murray made his first appearance back from injury and slowed down the Sens, but it was too little too late. Murray got the start for game 4 and the Penguins responded well, bouncing back in a 3-2 win. The Penguins then played a flawless game 5, shutting out the Senators 7-0. Despite the blowout, this series was destined for 7 games. Ottawa fed off their home crowd in game 6 and won 2-1-thanks to goaltender Craig Anderson. Another game 7 for the Pens…. same result! A double overtime thriller which ended with Chris Kunitz scoring not only his second goal of the day, but second of the playoffs propelled the Pens to the Stanley Cup finals.
From Pittsburgh to Nashville….. now let’s talk about the miraculous run from the second wild card spot. Finishing the regular season with a 41-29-12 record (94 points), the Predators would have to take on the Chicago Blackhawks in round one. Goaltender Pekka Rinne was a brick wall in games 1 and 2 shutting out the high scoring Blackhawks in back to back games. The Predators were up 2-0 and headed home against the best of the west. In the second period of game 3, the Blackhawks finally scored their first goal of the series. They tacked on another and were up 2-0 after two periods. The Preds fought back for their goaltender and tied the game up. Late in to the first overtime period, Kevin Fiala scored his second goal of the playoffs and the Preds had a 3-0 lead. Rinne had another incredible game in game 4 and two goals from defensemen Roman Josi led them to a 4-1 win. The clear MVP of that series was Rinne who stopped 123 of 126 shots. Ryan Johansen was a play-making machine tallying 5 assists in the 4 games.
After the sweep, the Predators were off to St. Louis to take on the Blues. Five of the 6 games were decided by one goal, and the other was a two-goal game because of a late empty net goal. The Preds’ defense had 17 points in the series, proving not only can they shut down top scorers, but can do some scoring of their own. After halting Patrick Kane and Jonathon Toews in their first series, they did exactly the same to Vladimir Tarasenko of the Blues. The Predators showed a ton of poise this series, playing very smart hockey with the smallest of leads. Oh yeah, the Predators have yet to lose a game at home this playoffs. Once again, Rinne was unbelievable, but the stacked defense of the Predators propelled them to their first ever Western Conference final.
The Pacific Division champs were up next. The Anaheim Ducks, coming off a grueling 7 game series against the Oilers, were the only thing stopping the Preds from their first Cup appearance. The two teams would split the first 4 games of the series with each team winning one road game and one in overtime. The Preds 6 game home win streak this playoffs had come to an end in game 4, but an even bigger loss was a season-ending injury to star center Ryan Johansen. After a few iffy performances, Rinne bounced back in game 5 with 32 saves to take a 3-2 series lead. Heading home for game 6 and a chance to end the series, the Preds had a ton of confidence. Despite being thoroughly outplayed, Rinne kept the game close and A Colton Sissons’ hat trick eliminated the Ducks, making the Preds the best of the West.
What would a Stanley Cup article be without a prediction? This is going to be a very close series, but experience might be the overwhelming factor here. Despite a few hiccups along the way, the Penguins have always bounced back and overcome them. That will not end here. Penguins in 6.