History will be made in the 2017 Stanley Cup Finals. Either the Nashville Predators will win the Cup for the first time in franchise history, or the Pittsburgh Penguins will become the first team this century and in the salary-cap era to repeat as NHL champions. Sports Interaction oddsmakers give the edge to Sidney Crosby & Co.
Nashville Predators at Pittsburgh Penguins Game 1
In the NBA, chalk always wins out. You never see a No. 8 seed reach the NBA Finals. In the NHL, it’s rare but not unprecedented for a No. 8 seed to reach the Stanley Cup Finals. For example, the Los Angeles Kings hoisted the Cup as one back in 2012. However, the 2017 Predators are the first No. 16 seed to reach the Finals. By 16 seed, we mean the lowest team on the entire playoff ladder. The Preds and the Flames each finished the regular season with 94 points, fewest of the postseason clubs, but the Predators lost that tiebreaker.
Nashville’s run to its first Stanley Cup Finals is richly deserved. In the first round, it became the first No. 8 seed to sweep a No. 1, shocking the Chicago Blackhawks. In the second round, the Predators ousted St. Louis, the NHL’s best team in the final two-plus months of the regular season, in six games. I picked against the Predators in both series. I was on their bandwagon in the conference finals, and Nashville beat the Pacific Division champion Anaheim Ducks in six. Trust me when I tell you that the city of Nashville has put country music and college football on the back-burner for now. That town is going hockey mad.
The Preds got here despite two major injuries suffered in the postseason. Forward Kevin Fiala broke his leg in Game 1 of the Blues series. While a setback, it paled in comparison to the loss of center Ryan Johansen to season-ending thigh injury in Game 4 against Anaheim. Johansen, who is from Vancouver, is second on the team with 13 points (team-best 10 assists) and is plus-12 in these playoffs. He tied for the team lead with 61 regular-season points and led with 47 assists.
The Western Conference champions have largely been carried by goaltender Pekka Rinne. He has a .942 save percentage in the playoffs, the best of any goalie in the past five postseasons who has played a minimum of 15 games. Rinne is 12-4 with a 1.70 GAA. Not bad for a guy taken with the final pick of the eighth round in the 2004 draft. The draft was shortened to seven rounds the following year.
This also has to feel sweet for blueliner and Toronto native P.K. Subban, who was traded to Nashville last offseason from Montreal for Shea Weber. Subban has 10 points and is plus-6 in the playoffs, regularly shutting down the opposing team’s top scoring threat. Subban is looking to follow in Hall of Famer Patrick Roy’s footsteps by winning the Stanley Cup in his first season with a new team after being traded by the Canadiens. Roy won it in 1996 with Colorado.
When the playoffs began, the Predators were +3000 to win the Cup. Only the Blues (+3500) and Maple Leafs (+4000) had longer odds.
In June 1998, the Detroit Red Wings repeated as Stanley Cup champions – incidentally, the Predators debuted in the NHL four months later – and no team has done it since. The Blackhawks have won three Stanley Cups this decade but never made it back the next year. The L.A. Kings have two Cups since 2012 but also were unable to return to the Finals with a chance to defend.
Pittsburgh has its shot after eliminating Ottawa in a thrilling 3-2 double-overtime Game 7 on Thursday night. Chris Kunitz scored the winner past Craig Anderson at 5:09 into the second OT, Kunitz’s second goal of the game. Crosby had the main assist on the winner. Matt Murray stopped 27 shots on his 23rd birthday. The Pens played without winger Patric Hornqvist, who has been out since suffering an upper-body injury in Game 1. Hornqvist has seven points (4G, 3A) in 13 playoff games and had 44 (21G, 23A) in 70 regular-season games. It’s not yet clear if he will play in Game 1 on Monday, but he’s a hockey player so he probably will.
Murray entered the playoffs as the team’s No. 1 goalie but was hurt right before the start of Game 1 in the first round against Columbus. Backup Marc-Andre Fleury played well in Murray’s place for the most part but was pulled during Pittsburgh’s 5-1 Game 3 loss that put Ottawa up 2-1 in the series. Murray took his spot there and hasn’t left the net since. Crosby (7G, 13 A) and Evgeni Malkin (7G, 17A) are two leading candidates for the Conn Smythe Trophy. Crosby won it last year and Malkin in 2009.
The Penguins are the first defending champions to return to the Final since Detroit in 2009. Those Red Wings, then in the Western Conference, lost in seven games to Pittsburgh, giving Crosby his first Stanley Cup.
The Predators and Penguins split in the regular season. Pittsburgh lost in Nashville 5-1 on Oct. 22. Fiala and Viktor Arvidsson scored two goals for Nashville. Fleury was in net for the Pens – he was pulled after two periods — and rookie Juuse Saros for the Preds. On Jan. 31 in Pittsburgh, the Pens won 4-2. Hornqvist scored twice and Murray had 37 saves. Rinne stopped 35 shots for Nashville.
Predators vs. Penguins Predictions
This is the first Stanley Cup Finals with two American-born head coaches in the Predators’ Peter Laviolette and Penguins’ Mike Sullivan. Laviolette won the Cup in 2006 as coach of the Carolina Hurricanes and lost in 2010 with the Flyers vs. Chicago.
Huge offensive edge to Pittsburgh in this series, especially with Johansen out. Nashville is better defensively. The Penguins are the fifth team in the NHL’s expansion era to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals by winning a Game 7 in overtime. The previous three would win the Cup. So will Pittsburgh, in seven games. The Johansen injury and home-ice advantage are the difference. That the series goes the distance is +187 and that Pittsburgh wins in seven is +329.