With puck drop of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final scheduled 24 hours from now, hockey fans get the matchup that will not only provide the most entertainment, but the closest results as well.
Anaheim brought a solid veteran team, and Ottawa brought a feel-good Cinderella story, but the matchup that will be the most intense and electric belongs to Nashville versus Pittsburgh. I have to say that I would have never imagined the Guinness Book of World Records be in attendance of a Nashville Predators playoff game to record the sound decibels to measure if it's the loudest indoor sporting event of all time. The #Smashville fans are crazy, and I love how they embrace not only the sport, but the team. The Penguins bring speed and maturity against a relatively young and inexperienced Nashville team. The Pens fans have been through this last year, and you know they will be hungry for a repeat, something that hasn't been done since the 1997 and 1998 Red Wings teams.
Each team carries it's own strengths, weaknesses and pressures, which we will dissect below. Categories that will be measured include offence, defence, goaltending, special teams, and "other" intangibles.
Pittsburgh - There's not enough that can be said about this team offensively. Four of the top six total point-getters these playoffs belong to the Pittsburgh Penguins (Malkin - 24, Crosby - 20, Kessel - 19, Guentzel - 16). It is important to keep in mind that the Penguins have played the most amount of games out of any team these playoffs with 19, so these numbers are a little inflated. Even with the amount of games, Malkin, Crosby and Kessel are all averaging a point-per-game or higher. Saying that, hockey fans have seen the potential of this offence, scoring four or more goals in a game six times. Having sustained injuries to key contributors such as Hornqvist, Rust and of course Sid the Kid, this team has received scoring from both likely and unlikely players alike, capped off by the Kunitz two-goal performance in game seven versus Ottawa, who hadn't scored a goal in a game since February 25th.
Nashville - This team definitely does not have the same offensive numbers that the Pens forwards possess, but they can kill you with their speed. The Predators only have four forwards with 10 or more points, with the dynamic Filip Forsberg leading the way (Forsberg - 15, Johansen - 13, Sissons - 10, Arvidsson - 10). Of course, with the season ending injury to Johansen, a big portion of Nashville's offence has been depleted. However, like Pittsburgh, they find clutch scoring from some unlikely names, such as Sissons, Watson and Aberg. The downside to this offence is that not a single forward is averaging a point-per-game or better, and their highest scorer (Forsberg) would rank fifth against Pittsburgh's forwards. Couple this with the fact that Nashville's captain Mike Fisher hasn't registered a single point in the playoffs, and their reliance on secondary scoring may come back to bite them in this final series.
Advantage - Pittsburgh Penguins
Pittsburgh - This team has faced adversity when it comes to its blue line. With Letang ruled out of the playoffs before playing a single game, the Pens have been facing an uphill battle with their defence since game one. Injuries sustained to Schultz and Daley throughout the playoffs forced young players such as Dumoulin and Ruhwedel into the spotlight. They clearly aren't the same impact players as Letang and Schultz for Pittsburgh, and when Dumoulin is leading the defence in ice time during games, you know the Pens are as depleted as can be on the back end. With Schultz and Daley back to adequate health, the Pens do get a boost for their defensive depth that hasn't really been seen for majority of their playoff run.
Nashville - It's no surprise that David Poile has constructed this team from the back end out, and the Predators defence corps are the reason why they are battling for their first Stanley Cup in franchise history. The top four defence of Josi, Ellis, Subban and Ekholm make up four out of top eight scorers for the Predators. It's extremely rare to have such massive contributions offensively from your defensemen, and to have three in double digit point totals already exemplifies how integral the Predators defence is to their game and overall success. Not to mention they are just as impressive defensively as they are offensively, blocking shots and creating important game-changing turnovers. You know they are impressive when Malkin is quoted as saying that it will be the toughest challenge of his life, also stating that they have four Erik Karlsson's on the blue line.
Advantage - Nashville Predators
Pittsburgh - The goaltending carousel of the Penguins has actually been a massive benefit for the team. When Murray went down during practice before game one of the playoffs, there were maybe a handful of people on the entire planet that had the confidence in Fleury to not only keep this team alive but become an integral component. Throughout the playoffs, Fleury posted a respectable 9-6 record with a .924 save percentage and a 2.56 goals against average. Fleury was a massive contribution for Pittsburgh, literally stealing games for his squad. After his collapse against Ottawa, coach Mike Sullivan made the change to go with Matt Murray, and his gamble paid off. Murray is posting a stellar 4-1 record with a .946 save percentage and a 1.35 goals against average. It will be interesting to see how Murray will stack up against a fast Nashville team while only starting four games these playoffs. It's nice for Pittsburgh to know that if Murray falters, Fleury will be more than capable of handling the duties between the pipes.
Nashville - As impressive as Pittsburgh's goalie tandem has been, Nashville's leading netminder has been just as incredible. Known more for his inconsistencies than stellar play over the past few seasons, Pekka Rinne has put that label behind him. Over the course of 16 games, he's posted a 12-4 record with a .941 save percentage and a 1.70 goals against average. With goaltending being arguably the most important element in the Stanley Cup playoffs, Rinne has been the foundation that has allowed other elements to thrive and play loosely over the last 16 games. Something else to consider would be that Rinne had to face arguably more potent offences than Pittsburgh overall these playoffs. This position matchup is as close as any I've seen in a long time, but I would have to give the edge to the netminder who's played the entire playoffs.
Advantage - Nashville Predators
Special Teams Breakdown
Power Play - The power play advantage is a perfect reflection of the balance between offenses. Pittsburgh ranks tied for second in the playoffs with a 25% power play percentage, while Nashville ranks 12th with a 14.9% power play percentage. There's no doubt that this category belongs to Pittsburgh.
Penalty Kill - Similar to the power play, the penalty kill reflects the defensive perceptions well. Nashville ranks fourth in the playoffs with an 88.1% penalty kill percentage, while Pittsburgh ranks eighth with a 85.5% penalty kill percentage. While this category is closer in proximity than the power play, the advantage will still have to go to Nashville.
Summary - While each team excels in one particular aspect of special teams compared to the other, it's hard to ignore the disparity of power play percentages between Pittsburgh and Nashville. Therefore, Pittsburgh has the advantage in the special teams department by a narrow margin.
Advantage - Pittsburgh Penguins
"Other" Intangibles Breakdown
Home Ice Crowd - While both clubs are expecting their fans to be the loudest they have heard all year, there's one arena which has stood out above the rest for housing the loudest fans all playoffs long: the Nashville Predators. Like I said earlier, I'm still amazed and shocked at how loud fans in Nashville of all places can get. While Pittsburgh is no slouch for crowd loudness, nobody is topping the Predators and their fan base in this category.
Days Off & Games Played - Since both of these intangibles revolve around the element of fatigue, I decided to group them together. Nashville is definitely the more well rested team, as they have not only had more days off in general, but had been waiting for Pittsburgh for three days already. Another factor to consider is that Nashville has not had to play a game seven yet these playoffs, while Pittsburgh has gone through two of them and have played three more games than Nashville (19 for Pittsburgh, 16 for Nashville). This category favours the Predators.
Home & Road Splits - While it's expected that both teams play better at home than the road, one team does both better than the other. The Penguins have a home split of 7-3 (.700) and a road split of 5-4 (.556), however the Predators have been dominant at home with a split of 7-1 (.875) and a 5-3 split on the road (.625). These splits allow the argument that the Predators will have a easier time defending home ice and winning on the road than the Penguins. Advantage to the Predators for this category.
Summary - There's a lot of "other" intangible factors, but I picked these three in particular as I feel that they have the most underlying influence in the playoffs. In the categories that often go unnoticed, give the edge to Nashville.
Advantage - Nashville Predators
This Stanley Cup Final is going to be incredible. The speed, offence, defence, goaltending, crowds and storylines will be on full display, and that's all fans of the game can ask for. When everything is broken down into specific categories, these teams are quite even and match up really well against one another.
Personally, I have always lived by the motto that defence wins championships (unless you are in the NBA...). Nashville has an incredible defensive corps that can not only lock down top line forwards, but can also contribute offensively at the rate of top forwards in the playoffs. When Pittsburgh is locked down offensively, it's difficult for them to fall back on their defence for support, and will lose those close one-goal games more often than a team like Nashville. With this important element combined with the home dominance of Nashville, I believe that Nashville will be lifting Lord Stanley for the first time in franchise history.
Prediction - Nashville in 6 games