And then there were two.
The conference finals are in the books and the stage has been set for the 2017 Stanley Cup Finals as the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins will play host to the Nashville Predators when the best-of-seven series begins Monday at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh.
Nashville Predators def. Anaheim Ducks to win series 4-2
Welcome to “Smashville.”
Once a questionable destination for NHL hockey in America’s Heartland, Nashville has embraced the game and become “Hockeytown U.S.A” of the deep south. Winning will do that and the culture created by the Predators has not only brought the national spotlight to Music City, but has converted doubters into believers regarding the viability of professional hockey in Tennessee. And now, Nashville’s rabid fan base sits just four more wins away from its first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
After sweeping the mighty Chicago Blackhawks, the Predators dispatched the St. Louis Blues in six games to make its first-ever appearance in the conference finals where it defeated the Anaheim Ducks in a physical, six-game series four-games-to-two. Rivaling any top-two defensive pairing in the league, Nashville’s defensive corps led by Roman Josi (5, 5, +4), Ryan Ellis (4, 7, +7), P.K. Subban (2, 8, +6) and Mattias Ekholm (0, 8, +10), along with the hottest goalie the playoffs in Pekka Rinne, has proven to be a difficult nut to crack yielding just 29 goals in 16 games, including a pair of shutouts.
Rinne, who has spent his entire 11-year NHL career with Nashville since the Predators stole him in the 8th-round (258th overall) in the 2004 NHL Draft, leads all playoff goalies in wins (12), goals-against average (1.70) and save percentage (.941). The Finnish netminder looks comfortable in the spotlight, proving equal to the task with save after timely save in the playoffs.
Offensively, Filip Forsberg has been a revelation with eight goals and seven assists, including an NHL Playoffs-best +17. He single-handedly dismantled the Ducks with goals in all but one of the six games in the series, but he will be counted on more than ever now in the wake of injuries to Ryan Johansen (Acute Compartment Syndrome) and team captain Mike Fisher (undisclosed). Drafted and traded by the Washington Capitals before he even played a game with them, Forsberg is one of the most exciting young players on Nashville, but he’s going to need help.
Johansen is out indefinitely. With 13 points in 14 playoff games, players like James Neal (5, 2, -3, two game-winners), Viktor Arvidsson (2, 8, +13, GWG) and Colton Sissons (5, 5, +9, two game-winners) will be counted on more than ever. While Fisher has been skating, his availability to begin Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals on Monday remains to be seen. The best-kept secret in the league, Fisher is a dynamic two-way forward. He doesn’t have a point in the playoffs, but is the Preds top face-off man not to mention his 35 hits and 16 blocked shots.
— Nashville Predators (@PredsNHL) May 23, 2017
Improving to 7-1 at home at Bridgestone Arena, the Predators clinched all three of its 2017 playoff series in “Smashville,” but it will begin the Stanley Cup Finals on the road in Pittsburgh. The city will play host to its first Stanley Cup game on June 3.
Pittsburgh Penguins def. Ottawa Senators to win series 4-3
Ottawa pushed Pittsburgh to the brink before Chris Kunitz’s shot from the circle found the top corner 25:09 into sudden-death as the defending champion Penguins advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals for the sixth time in franchise history.
Kunitz, who scored twice in Game 7 behind a team-high six shots, is just one of many players on a very deep and formidable Pittsburgh team that begins with Evgeni Malkin (7, 17, +8) and Sidney Crosby (7, 13, -1) in the middle.
Despite the very best from Senators’ goaltender Craig Anderson (11 wins, 2nd; 2.34 GAA, 4th; .922 Sv%, 6th), wave after wave of Penguins offense flowed through the neutral zone. Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson (2, 16, +13, 2 GWG) and Bobby Ryan (6, 9, +1, 3 GWG) did all they could but Pittsburgh would not be denied a chance at a repeat.
Five of the seven games in the series were decided by one goal. Pittsburgh, which was 0-7 all-time in Game 7’s at home when losing Game 6, got game-winners from four different players: Phil Kessel (7, 12 , +11, 2 GWG), Brian Dumoulin (1, 2, +3), Olli Maatta (2, 5, +6) and Kunitz (2, 3, +5).
It all starts with Malkin and Crosby, the top-two points leaders in the playoffs, but it ends in net and both Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury sharing time in between the pipes. Fleury won nine games before giving up four goals on nine shots to Ottawa in Game 3. All Murray has done is save the season with just seven goals allowed on 130 shots to win three of the last four (1.35 GAA, .946Sv%).
We want the Cup. pic.twitter.com/TBmwo3SZ90
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) May 26, 2017
Considering the Penguins have accomplished all of this without star defenseman Kris Letang, the improbable run to defend its title is all the more remarkable. A patchwork defensive unit in Dumoulin, Maatta, Justin Schultz, Ian Cole, Ron Hainsey and Trevor Daley have been steady if not spectacular.
Pittsburgh Penguins (50-21-11, 111 points, 2nd Metropolitan Division; 12-7 in Stanley Cup Playoffs — Defeated Columbus 4-1, Defeated Washington 4-3; Defeated Ottawa 4-3.
Nashville Predators (41-29-12, 94 points, 4th Central Division; 12-4 in Stanley Cup Playoffs — Defeated Chicago 4-0; Defeated St. Louis 4-2; Defeated Anaheim 4-2.
Head-to-Head: Nashville def. Pittsburgh, 5-1, on Oct. 22; Pittsburgh def. Nashville, 4-2, on Jan. 31
Pittsburgh will attempt to become the first NHL team since the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings to win back-to-back Stanley Cups. Nashville will be making its first Stanley Cup Finals appearance in franchise history.
Despite being pushed to the limit in a seven-game Eastern Conference final that wasn’t decided until 5:09 into double-overtime, the Pittsburgh Penguins are considered the favorite to repeat. Since its inception in 1967, the Penguins have staked claim to four Stanley Cups in franchise history: 1990-91, 1991-92, 2008-09, 2015-16.
Depth may be an issue for Nashville, which may be without Fisher, Johansen and Fiala for the series. Still, the Predators continue to find a way to win. Coach Peter Laviolette deserves a lot of credit managing its injuries. After securing its first conference title, despite slipping into the playoffs as the final seed in the Western Conference, Nashville is eyeing its first Stanley Cup since entering the league in 1998.
Nashville Predators vs. Pittsburgh Penguins Series Schedule
Mon, May 29
NSH@PIT 8:00 PM ET| NBC
Wed, May 31
NSH@PIT 8:00 PM ET| NBCSN
Sat, June 3
PIT@NSH 8:00 PM ET| NBCSN
Mon, June 5
PIT@NSH 8:00 PM ET| NBC
Thurs, June 8
NSH@PIT 8:00 PM ET| NBC
Sun, June 11
PIT@NSH 8:00 PM ET| NBC
Wed, June 14
NSH@PIT 8:00 PM ET| NBC
* if necessary
Main Image: Ryan Johansen #92 of the Nashville Predators celebrates with the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl and teammates after they defeated the Anaheim Ducks 6 to 3 in Game Six of the Western Conference Final during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Bridgestone Arena on May 22, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)