The 2016-17 NHL Season is now entering its final chapter: the Stanley Cup Final. After a long, arduous regular season and a grueling first three rounds of the postseason, the moment hockey fans wait for all year long is finally upon us.
In this year’s rendition of the Stanley Cup Final, the defending champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins, will return to the Finals to attempt to win their second straight championship. Standing in their way are the upstart Nashville Predators, who roared all the way to the NHL’s grandest stage despite entering the playoffs with the weakest record of the field.
The stage is set for yet another great final round, and the festivities will kick off on Memorial Day at 8:00 in Pittsburgh on NBC. Here’s Overtime’s comprehensive Stanley Cup Final preview.
Nashville Predators: Season Recap
The Nashville Predators have been a very good team for a very long time, but they have never been able to take that next step into the upper echelon of NHL teams. This year though, things have finally turned the Predators’ way.
Nashville had a good year overall, but they did enter the playoffs with the worst record of any playoff team. Facing a first round matchup against the vaunted Chicago Blackhawks, the Preds rallied together as a team and swept their division rivals, before disposing of the highly-talented St. Louis Blues and Anaheim Ducks relatively easily.
Head coach Peter Laviolette has turned the Preds from a safe, defensive-oriented team into an aggressive forechecking team that isn’t afraid to take some chances in the offensive zone. Laviolette has always used this up-tempo system, but now he has the ideal team for it in Nashville: a young, speedy, hard-hitting bunch that is bolstered by its strong defensive core and its battle-tested netminder, Pekka Rinne. Rinne had struggled with consistency the past few seasons, but he has rediscovered his form in a big way just in time for the Preds’ playoff run; they couldn’t have done it without him.
Nashville may not have been on a ton of people’s radars coming into the playoffs, but they are no dark horse; they have absolutely earned the right to make it to the Stanley Cup Final.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Season Recap
Coming into the season as the defending Stanley Cup Champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins just went out and put up an even better campaign this time around. Led of course by the core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and goalie Matt Murray, the Penguins stormed their way to an 111-point season, good for second place in the Eastern Conference.
Even though almost their entire team spent part of the season injured, the Penguins’ starts put up career years, and the coaching staff continued to find diamonds in the rough that became big time players down the stretch, such as Jake Guentzel, Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, and Scott Wilson. Any team can score goals when they’ve got the top six that the Penguins boast, but Pittsburgh has been unusually good at unearthing other gems from the late rounds of the draft and turning them into big league players, similar to how the Blackhawks always found a way to ice a competitive team under Salary Cap constraints.
And as for the defense and goaltending? Pittsburgh is missing their top defenseman (Kris Letang) and played large stretches of the year without their starting goalie (Murray), but never missed a beat. When faced with misfortune, the Penguins just came together and rose all the way back to the Stanley Cup Final.
Nashville Predators: X-Factor
Winning on the road. We all know that Nashville has become one of the top hockey markets in America, and Bridgestone Arena is an insanely difficult place to come in and play at. To that degree, the Preds have been virtually unbeatable at their home rink, going 7-0-1 when playing in “Smashville”.
However, true Stanley Cup Champs have to be able to win on the road as well as at home. If you can win one out of the two road games that start off a series, you’re in good shape, as you’ll be able to come home with the series at least tied. Nashville has gone 2-0, 1-1, and 1-1 to kick off their first three rounds, and that has gone a long way in helping them win their series.
Pittsburgh Penguins: X-Factor
Experience and Savvy. Simply put, the Penguins are bred to thrive under pressure. They have faced lots of adversity over the course of this season in the form of many major injuries and a couple of seven-game playoff series, all under the immense pressure that comes with being a defending Stanley Cup Champion.
However, the Penguins just don’t give in. They are an extremely well-coached club that feeds off of each other, and have the look of a cohesive dynasty that can rival the 2010s Blackhawks. The Penguins have the most Stanley Cup experience of any team in the NHL, and no situation whatsoever fazes them.
Almost any other team would’ve crumbled under the pressure that the Penguins have faced, but instead Pittsburgh has risen above the adversity and has another Stanley Cup in their sights.
We have been spoiled with many memorable Stanley Cup Finals matchups over the past 10 years, but this year’s Nashville-Pittsburgh clash looks like it could be one of the best. Nashville is coming in firing on all cylinders, while Pittsburgh is the reliable well-oiled machine.
The Penguins haven’t had to face a team as good as the Predators this entire playoff run, and given the way they struggled to put away the perennial choker Washington Capitals and scrappy Ottawa Senators, there could be real reason for Penguins fans to be worried. And when you factor in that Nashville is coming into this series extremely well-rested and with a reputation of winning early on the road, this will surely be the toughest test that the Penguins have faced.
But true champions are able to do the impossible, to be able to conjure up one miracle after another and to be able to rally the troops even when the chips are down. And that is exactly what the Penguins have been doing the past two seasons. Nashville will not go down without a fight, and may even take an early lead in the series, but I think that Crosby’s Penguins will emerge victorious yet again, in his greatest triumph yet. It will take at least 6 games, but I predict that the Penguins will be able to stop the Predators in their tracks.