By: Jeremy Perrigo
The Nashville Predators
When it’s all said and done, the 2017 NHL Playoffs will be one to remember. It started off with 16 very different teams. Some punched their ticket to compete for the Stanley Cup weeks before the end of the regular season, others snuck in at the last second. The latter is the story of the Nashville Predators, a team that wouldn't have even made the playoffs if they were in the Eastern Conference. Despite this they have created one of the greatest feel-good stories of these playoffs.
The Predators had never even been to a Conference Final before this postseason, and now they have made franchise history yet again with a series-clinching 6-3 win in Game 6 over the Anaheim Ducks Monday night.
After a strong series against the St. Louis Blues in the Conference Semifinals, a matchup which also ended in six games, the Predators looked confident. By this point in the playoffs most were done doubting the unlikely Western Conference Champ, who took down two Central Division rivals without losing a game on home ice. This confidence showed in Game 1 of the Western Conference Final where Nashville went into Anaheim and played a solid game start to finish, coming out on top with a 3-2 overtime win off a goal scored by winger James Neal.
The Predators, who placed dead last out of the 16 teams that qualified for the playoffs, never had a chance of home ice advantage. This has not stopped them from making the most of every game they have played at Bridgestone Area. After three rounds of postseason hockey, the Predators have still not lost in regulation on home ice; their only defeat in Tennessee came in overtime of Game 4 versus the Ducks.
Goaltender Pekka Rinne has been stellar for the majority of these playoffs. Even after giving up a soft goal or two against Anaheim, he has played a pivotal role in winning games for his team. This culminated in 38-save performance in Nashville’s Game 6 win, a match the Preds were outshot in 41-18. With a GAA of 1.70 and save percentage of .941 in 16 playoff games this season, he will likely be a top contender for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP if the Predators go on to win the Stanley Cup.
With the series tied 2-2, heading to Game 5 in Anaheim, Nashville learned they would be without first-line forward Ryan Johansen for the remainder of the playoffs. Johansen needed emergency surgery for what the Predators described as “an acute compartment syndrome in his left thigh”. Not only did they lose Johansen beginning in Game 5, but they also lost captain Mike Fisher with an undisclosed injury.
These injuries factor into what is likely the most impressive part of Nashville’s playoff run to date. Going into Game 5 without Johansen, who is second on the team with 13 points in the postseason, and Mike Fisher, one of the biggest leaders in their locker room, it was uncertain how the team would perform.
Coming off their first loss in Music City, and without key players, Nashville had a strong bounce-back performance in Anaheim. The Ducks scored early in the game off a Chris Wagner shot in the first period. Nashville trailed until the dying minutes of the second frame when Colin Wilson tossed in a backhander off a short pass from Colton Sissons to tie the game on the powerplay heading into the third. In the final 20 minutes a strong individual effort from Pontus Aberg, on his first goal of the postseason, broke the tie in favor of Nashville. Austin Watson would add an empty net goal from the Predators own zone to win the game 3-1.
In Game 6, Nashville faced the same situation, with Johansen now in a full leg brace and Fisher still out with an undisclosed injury. The advantage for Nashville was that they were able to play in front of their deafening crowd. The Predators did not play their best hockey in Game 6 and the absence of Johansen and Fisher undoubtedly played a part. However, as good teams do, they found way to win. Nashville was outshot by Anaheim all game and Pekka Rinne was forced to make what might have been his strongest performance of the postseason. When Nashville did get their chances they took advantage. Colton Sissons, who had only eight goals during the regular season, managed a hat trick, including the game-winning goal off a perfect pass from Calle Jarnkrok:
In the final two games of the series the Predators had goals from Colton Sissons(3), Austin Watson(3), Filip Forsberg(1), Pontus Aberg(1) and Colin Wilson(1) all of whom are 25 years of age or younger. Other than Forsberg, who is a first line player, none of these skaters were among the top five point scorers for the Predators during the regular season. Aberg and Sissons, who joined the team later in the season, were not even in the top ten. Yet when Nashville had to dig deep, they got the help they needed from their least experienced players.
If the Nashville Predators are going to win the Stanley Cup, they need continued production from their young players. With Johansen gone for the season, and Mike Fisher nursing an injury, Filip Forsberg, with eight goals and seven assists in these playoffs, will be leaned on now more than ever to produce.
Viktor Arvidsson, who lead the Preds this season with 31 goals and 30 assists, has been noticeably struggling to score in the playoffs. He has recorded two goals and eight assists, with five of those assists coming in the most recent series against Anaheim. If he finds his game in final he can be a game-changing player.
The Preds defense has almost certainly been the best out of any team in the playoffs. The D combos of P.K. Subban/Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis/Roman Josi have logged the majority of ice team, each playing equal to or above 24 minutes a night on average. With a combined plus/minus of 27, they are an important first layer in front of Pekka Rinne, and a significant reason why Rinne has been so successful in the postseason.
The Pittsburgh Penguins
While Nashville was an unlikely contender for the Stanley Cup Final, the opposite can be said for the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins won the Stanley Cup last year and with a relatively unchanged roster for this postseason, the expectations were high again for Sidney and company.
The Penguins have gone the entire postseason without their star defenseman Kris Letang, who is recovering from a herniated disc. Letang had 15 points in 23 playoff games for Pittsburgh on their way to winning the Stanley Cup last year. Those who questioned if the Penguins would be able to make it back to the final again this year often cited Letang’s absence as being too much of an obstacle to overcome.
Defenseman Justin Schultz and winger Patric Hornqvist missed significant time in the Conference Final against the Ottawa Senators. Hornqvist was unable to return for the series-determining Game 7. Justin Schultz, however, was ready to play at the last minute, after missing the Penguins previous four games with an upper-body injury.
It didn’t stop there for Schultz who had an assist on Chris Kunitz’s game-winning goal in double overtime
Chris Kunitz had an unproductive playoffs until Game 7 against Ottawa, scoring only two points in 13 previous games. In Game 7 he not only had the game-winning goal, but factored into Justin Schultz’s 3rd period tally as well by setting a screen in front of Ottawa goaltender Craig Anderson.
Pittsburgh has been forced to play in two Game 7s this postseason. This is not due to a lack of effort on the part of the Penguins’ top forwards. Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel have 24, 20, and 19 points respectively in the playoffs. Jake Guentzel has also been a pleasant addition to Pittsburgh’s scoring, with nine goals and seven assists for 16 points and fourth on the Penguins’ roster. After Guentzel, scoring drops off; the next two highest point-producing players are Justin Schultz and Bryan Rust with ten and seven points.
It is no secret that in order to shut down the Penguin’s scoring, their star players have to be targeted. Ottawa’s Marc Methot and Bobby Ryan were seen continuously getting into on-ice altercations with Sidney Crosby in an attempt to throw off his game.
(Explicit) Here is a video of Ryan and Crosby yelling at each other from their own benches
Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin have had issues with each other when Pittsburgh has had a hard time producing offensively, leaving Kessel to display his frustration on the Penguins’ bench:
Emotions run high during the playoffs, for the Penguins that much is obvious. These emotions can be positive and help fuel long playoff runs.
The Predators, with their electric fan base and long list of celebrity National Anthem singers, have been a perfect example of what positive energy can do for a team. Not to mention a catfish or two, courtesy of the hometown Tennessee Titans:
On the opposite end of things, if too many negative emotions surface it can potentially send a team into a tailspin. Fortunately for the Penguins, Phil Kessel’s Game 2 hysterics resulted in a game-winning goal and not a bad penalty.
Pittsburgh was on the good end and the bad end of blowouts in the Conference Final against Ottawa. In Game 3 they lost 5-1 to the Senators, giving up four goals in the first period. They followed up this poor performance with back-to-back wins, including a 7-0 blowout in the opposite direction in Game 6.
The way teams have been able to recover from big losses in these playoffs makes it hard to predict on a game-to-game basis how a team will perform. In Round One of the playoffs the Edmonton Oilers lost 7-0 to the San Jose Sharks in Game 4 only to come back and win Game 5 of the series 4-3. In the following round the Oilers defeated the Ducks 7-1 in Game 6 only to lose Game 7 by a score of 2-1. During the Ottawa-Pittsburgh series each team that was blown out went on to win the following game, following a trend similar to previous rounds.
Inconsistent play makes the Penguins a team that may be difficult to favor in the final against Nashville. Inconsistent performances make it difficult to bet on the defending Stanley Cup Champs. Yet they have the experience, and they know what it takes to make it to that 16th win.
Nashville looked like a team that barely made it out of Game 6 alive. They were outshot significantly and played the majority of the time in their own zone. They made the most of the opportunities they did have and escaped with the win. This play is not a formula for success. In order to win the Stanley Cup the Predators are going to need to continue adjusting to the hole in their lineup created by Ryan Johansen’s injury. This means relying on their young players as they did in the last two games of the Western Conference Final. Mike Fisher is expected to be back for the start of the next round, per Preds’ General Manager David Poile, and that should be a huge boost to Nashville’s morale.
Pittsburgh has had to play in two Game 7s that were both a result of being unable to close out a 3-2 series in six games. It's understandable why it took all seven games to eliminate the President’s Trophy-winning Washington Capitals. However, 46 shots in Game 6 against Ottawa should have been enough for the Penguins come away with the series win. Instead, the Senators grinded out a 2-1 victory on home ice on the back of Craig Anderson, and would not go down without a fight, taking the defending Stanley Cup Champions to double overtime in Game 7.
Don’t expect the Stanley Cup Final to be over quickly. There have only been two sweeps and they both came in the first round. In the opposite direction there have only been three Game 7s, with seven matchups ending in six games. If the Nashville Predators are going to win the series their best chance is doing so on home ice, where they have had an atmospheric advantage all postseason.
The Penguins’ best chance is to start the series strong and make the most of their home ice advantage. The Predators have never trailed in a series in these playoffs, putting them in an unfamiliar position immediately by winning Game 1 at home would certainly be a step in the right direction for Pittsburgh.
Though Nashville seemed to stumble out of the Western Conference Final, the slate is wiped clean with the start of a new series. They will have had ample time to rest in the full week between matchups. Expect them to come out strong in Pittsburgh for Game 1 in an attempt to gain control of the series early. The Predators have played consistent hockey throughout the postseason and have not been blown out as opposed to Pittsburgh. If Nashville shows up in the Stanley Cup Final playing like the team that swept the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round, they might just be too much for the defending Stanley Cup Champions to handle.
Nashville in six games