It’s almost June, which means the Stanley Cup Final is here! The playoffs are a demanding two-month test of physical, tough hockey every other night. Now we sit, at most, 17 days away from crowning the next champions, either the Nashville Predators or the Pittsburgh Penguins. Here are five reasons that the Penguins will win the 2017 Stanley Cup, becoming the first repeat champions since the 1998 Detroit Red Wings.
Centers impact the game more than any other forward position, with the most defensive responsibilities while also serving as the focal point of an offensive attack. Every recent team to win the Cup has done so by building out from center: Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Anze Kopitar, Patrice Bergeron.
With Ryan Johansen out for the remainder of the playoffs and Mike Fisher dealing with injuries, the Preds are thin at center. That’s doubly unfortunate because the Penguins boast their greatest strength down the middle with Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Nick Bonino, and Matt Cullen. With all four lines having solid centers, all four lines can be rotated through, helping the Pens stay more fresh and balanced.
2. Sidney Crosby
When Crosby is healthy, there is no question he is the best player in the NHL. He had struggled in the playoffs after being concussed by Matt Niskanen in the second round against the Washington Capitals, but in Game 7 against the Senators, Crosby was back in full form: playing well in all three zones, dominating play when he was on the ice, and setting up Chris Kunitz for the double overtime game winner.
It isn’t difficult to see Crosby’s impact on the game. When he was on the ice, play shifted and the Pens had the upper hand. He shuts down offensive breaks and keeps an active stick in front of the net to break up passes and create turnovers. Crosby’s 12 playoff takeaways rank sixth out of Eastern Conference players. Look for Crosby to make an impact each and every time he's on the ice.
Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury have both had successful postseason campaigns this year. Murray’s .946 Sv% is the best of any goalie who has played more than one game in the playoffs. If something happens with Murray, Fleury is more than capable of stepping in. Fleury is 9-6 in the playoffs with a .924 Sv% and was only pulled to send a message to the rest of the team, largely through no fault of his own. Both goalies have won a Cup and have proven to still be effective. With two good options, Mike Sullivan can ride the hot hand, not needing to rely on the play of one player to win these last four games.
4. Pens Have Rinne’s Number
Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne has been lights out in the playoffs this year and is the Conn Smythe favorite going into the Final. So far Rinne has a .940 sv% and a 1.70 GAA, both of which are the best of any goalie who has played a full series. However, Rinne hasn’t fared well against the Penguins historically.
In eight career games against Pittsburgh, he is just 1-5-2 with a 3.52 GAA and a .852 Sv%, both of which leave a lot to be desired. If Rinne plays like he has historically and not how he has in the first three rounds, not only will the Penguins win, it will be a short series.
It’s talked about a lot, but the experience of having been there before is a big advantage for the Penguins. Fifteen players on the current roster played in the Final just a year ago. This is the first time the Preds have ever made the Final, and for most of the players including Pekka Rinne and PK Subban, this will be their first experience under the bright lights. Just two Predators, Mike Fisher with the 2007 Senators and Matt Carle in 2010 with the Flyers and 2015 with the Lightning, have ever played for the Cup, and each of those teams lost.
As with most big sporting events, teams come out jittery when they are inexperienced, which leads to mistakes and sloppy play. I would expect this will be the case in early games in the series for the Preds. Combine the expected opposition mistakes with having home-ice advantage, and the Penguins have a distinct advantage in the series.