After more than a month and a half of grueling playoff hockey, we’re somewhere between four and seven games away from handing out the Stanley Cup. The Nashville Predators and Pittsburgh Penguins will begin their battle on May 29th, and despite their underdog status, Nashville has the potential to stretch their surprise run all the way to a championship. Here are five reasons why they’ll be planning a parade through Smashville at the end of the series.
1 — The Defense
Chris Kunitz said it best in his post-game 7 interview: “They’ve (Nashville) got four Erik Karlssons over there.” Any conversation about the success (and title hopes) of these Predators starts and ends with their blue line corps. The acquisition of P.K. Subban during the last offseason took a very underrated defense and gave it a shot of star power, but the League is on notice now as the Predators have suffocated opposing scorers to the tune of a League-best 1.81 goals against per game average. They also hold the fourth-best penalty kill percentage and shots against average among playoff teams.
A top-four contingent of Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm, and the aforementioned Subban is formidable for any opponent, as the Blackhawks, Blues, and Ducks have learned in these playoffs. Matt Irwin and Yannick Weber have also held their own on the third pairing, and don’t pose a liability should they be forced into extra duty against the high-octane Penguins.
Having several solid options on defense also makes Head Coach Peter Laviolette’s life easier when it comes to line/pair-matching on the road. With multiple options for shutting down opposing scorers, Laviolette can focus more on getting his own attackers out against preferred defenders.
2 — Pekka Rinne
While the Preds’ defense has been stellar, their Finnish backstopper deserves his own share of credit for his team’s success to this point. It’s long been said that a hot goalie has the capability to steal an entire championship for his team, and Rinne looks posed to do just that.
His .941 save percentage ranks third among playoff goalies, and first among playoff goalies with at least seven games played. His 1.70 GAA? Same story. Pittsburgh’s Matt Murray is one of the goalies ahead of him, but the drastic difference in sample size renders that an unfair comparison. Based on these numbers, Rinne has certainly been the most consistent goaltender since the start of these playoffs.
But the true “Pekka Rinne X-Factor” lies in his puck-handling. His traditional statistics have been impressive, but his unique skill in halting opposing dump-ins and sending them the other way is like having a third defenseman assisting in break-outs. It thwarts the other team’s attempt to sustain pressure in the offensive zone, and in the event of a wholesale line change, a well-timed Rinne interception and stretch pass could spring an awaiting forward on a breakaway from the far blue line. With the added puck-handling from #35 in gold, the mobile Nashville defense gets another dangerous layer.
3 — The Smashville Advantage
Obviously they lack legitimate home-ice advantage in the traditional sense, but the Smashville crowd seemingly has a way of willing their team to victory. They’ve set decibel records, further strengthened their reputation as a hockey city, and ultimately joined the team as a key component of their success.
The playoffs are a spectacle all their own because of teams with the kind of unflappable belief the Preds have (last-minute goals, incredible comebacks, etc. don’t happen without it), and they owe the strength of their confidence to those in and around their building every game night. I mean, come on, there’s 20,000+ at the watch party alone! And that’s not including the “7th man” inside spurring the team on with chants, towels, and general rowdiness.
Nashville has the kind of belief that could transcend logic and stats in this series and lift them to a cinderella victory over the defending champs. Pittsburgh’s pedigree and environment are daunting in their own right, but the air in Nashville is made of something special; it’s easy to see the Predators picking up all three wins on home ice and stealing one on the road to win the Cup.
4 — The Rest Factor
It isn’t much, but the Predators have the advantage in terms of prior physical workload, having played three fewer games across the opening three series. But emotionally and mentally, Nashville has a much larger edge.
After an early sweep and two series of six games or fewer, Nashville hasn’t had the kind of rollercoaster that the Penguins have. Pittsburgh has faced two game sevens, including a 2OT affair against the Senators and a daunting endeavor against perennial rival Washington, and with injuries piling up, the heavy schedule could weigh on the Eastern champs. Some might say the lack of experience in stressful, game-breaking situations is a disservice to the Preds, but that conserved energy will come in handy in the second month of these playoffs.
With the edge in physical and mental energy, a quick start and greater endurance will see the Predators through to a Stanley Cup win.
5 — They’ve Done This Already
Probably the most popular knock against Nashville is how green the team is in the postseason. Everything since their loss in game 5 of their series against St. Louis has been a first for this team; first Conference Final, first banner earned, and now first trip to the Stanley Cup Final. It’s only natural to expect them to be a bit starstruck.
But temper those expectations for a moment and think back on the opponents the Predators have faced this year alone. There were the Anaheim Ducks, who have been one of the final two teams in the West two out of the last three years, the St. Louis Blues, who are no pushover themselves, and a team from Chicago called the Blackhawks.
Without a doubt, the most promising thing Nashville has going for them is their first-round sweep of those Chicago Blackhawks (the Penguins of the West, if you will). Most experts predicted Chicago to be in Nashville’s place facing the Penguins, but with two shutouts in United Center and zero losses in round one, the Predators proved their worth as a true contender. I’m not predicting another sweep, but the Predators are more than their playoff resume might suggest. Giant-killing is kinda their thing now.