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Scott Taylor

Penguins to Repeat

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Scott Taylor

By Scott Taylor

Photos by James Carey Lauder and Jeff Miller

The Stanley Cup final begins on Monday night in Pittsburgh as the Nashville Predators face the defending champion Penguins in a series of firsts.

The Penguins can become the first team to win back-to-back Stanley Cup championships since the Detroit Red Wings pulled it 20 years ago in 1997 and 1998. In the Salary Cap Era, a time when the experts contend that there is parity in the NHL, a repeat by the Penguins would give the contrarians a point with which to argue.

For Nashville, it’s the first time the Predators franchise has reached the Final and the first time their only general manager, David Poile, has made it to a Final after more than 40 years in the hockey business.

It could be argued that just about every expert in the game called the Penguins (50-21-11). At the beginning of the playoffs, the defending champs seemed to have only one weakness – goaltending. Over the past two months, Matt Murray appears to have solved that problem.

Nashville is a big surprise. The Preds had only 94 points (41-29-12) this season and were the eighth seed in the West and No. 16 overall. This was a team that was lucky to be in the playoffs. However, they swept No. 1 Chicago in the Opening Round and then rode goaltender Pekka Rinne to series wins over St. Louis and Anaheim. Still, even though these teams split the two games they played this season, the Penguins finished 17 points ahead of the Predators.

The key for Nashville – besides Rinne, of course – has been the play of their defensive corps, led by PK Subban. If Subban pulls off 16 wins this spring it will certainly poke Montreal Canadiens fans in the eye. GM Poile sent 2016 Norris Trophy winner Shea Weber to the Canadiens for Subban last summer and despite some hiccups during the regular season, the 28-year-old All-Star from Toronto has been Conn Smythe Trophy-worthy this spring. 

Nashville Predators PK Subban

PK Subban – Nashville Predators

With the Championship series beginning Monday at 7 p.m. on NBC and CBC, here are the four keys to the Final:

The Stats

Nashville’s playoff power play is running at 14.9 percent (12th this spring) while the penalty kill is at 88.1 percent (fourth). With 2.94 goals per game, the Preds are first overall and with only 1.81 against (thanks to the brilliance of Rinne), the Preds are also first overall.

The Penguins power play is dangerous. At 23.6 per cent this spring, Pittsburgh is third overall. The penalty kill, at 84.9 per cent is ninth. Pittsburgh is third in goals scored at 2.89 and fifth in goals against at 2.21. If there is a Penguins weakness, it’s in goal.

The Injuries

The Predators will be without No. 1 centre Ryan Johansen. He will not play in the Final due to compartment syndrome in his left thigh. Kevin Fiala is also out for the remainder of the playoffs after sustaining a fractured femur in Game 1 of the second round. 

Mike Fisher is day-to-day with an undisclosed injury. Craig Smith also remains day-to-day with an undisclosed injury, although he was on the ice for the pre-game warmup before to Game 6 of the West final. The Predators are optimistic both will be ready for Game 1 of the Final.

The Penguins were without Patric Hornqvist, Justin Schultz, Tom Kuhnhackl and Chad Ruhwedel for most or all of the Eastern Conference Final. Schultz was the only one who returned to the lineup for Game 7. He scored a goal and had an assist on the OT winner.

Gifted but oft-injured defenseman Kris Letang has missed the entire playoff run with a neck injury and will not return.

Underdog vs. Favorite

There is no doubt that Pittsburgh will be the heavy favorite and for good reason. They are led by two superstars, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and have already been to the dance and won.

Nashville is a clear underdog. They’ve never been this far in the playoffs in their history so this is completely new territory. But they play in a great rink with a sensational atmosphere and they have an outstanding goaltender. Anything can happen.   

The Conn Smythe Candidates

For Nashville, it’s clearly goaltender Pekka Rinne. His .941 save percentage is the best of any starting goalie this post-season as is his 1.70 GAA. Also watch Filip Forsberg and of course, PK Subban. Forsberg’s 14 even-strength points are the most of any forward still playing. Subban is one of the most exciting players in the game.

For Pittsburgh, it’s simple: Sidney Crosby has come back from a concussion in Round 2 to lead the Penguins to back-to-back finals. Then there’s Jake Guentzel, the playoff goal-scoring leader (9) who is where he is today because coach Mike Sullivan put him on Crosby’s line. The Pens also have Evgeni Malkin who leads Pittsburgh in total playoff points and Phil Kessel, the team leader in shots on goal and chances.

Sidney Crosby – Pittsburgh Penguins

Players to Watch:

Pittsburgh: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel

Nashville: Pekka Rinne, Filip Forsberg, PK Subban

Season Series:

Even at 1-1.

Our Choice:

Pittsburgh in six games.

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Scott Taylor

Rinne the Star of 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs

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Scott Taylor

By Scott Taylor

The number sits out there like a shining beacon on the hill: .951.

That’s Pekka Rinne’s NHL-leading playoff save percentage, the day after he led the Nashville Predators into the Western Conference final.

Of the goalies remaining in the Stanley Cup playoffs, Rinne is clearly the hottest goalie of the bunch. Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers is next at .930 while Marc-Andre Fleury of the Penguins is third at .929. The Oilers’ Cam Talbot is fourth at .924 and then Ottawa’s Craig Anderson is a mediocre .909.

Frankly, the goaltending in the second round of this year’s post-season hasn’t been particularly sparkling. Heck, even Lundqvist gave up five in his last start. However, Rinne has been the exception.

After Jake Allen of the St. Louis Blues took out the Minnesota Wild in the first round – and make no mistake, Allen was the ONLY reason St. Louis upset the Wild – it appeared as if the second round matchup between Nashville and the Blues would be a thriller. Two hot goaltenders and two underdog teams were going to make this series memorable.

Neither occurred. All thanks to Rinne.

After taking out Chicago in four straight and then beating the Blues in six, Rinne is now 8-2 in the post-season with a league best 1.37 goals against average and that eye-popping .951 save percentage. He’s playing his best hockey and the league’s best hockey at exactly the right time

“He gives us the confidence we need,” defenseman Roman Josi told NBCSN. “I think every game he’s been our best player. He’s so confident back there. He’s confident in making saves. He’s confident in passing the puck. And he’s been unbelievable for us.”

He is the reason the Predators will face either the Anaheim Ducks or Edmonton Oilers in the Western final.

And make no mistake, he had to be good to be better than Allen, the goaltender he beat in the second round. After all, despite all the media analysis you might have seen or read about the Blues’ first-round victory over Minnesota, the real reason – and the only reason – St. Louis won that series was the play of Allen.

“I don’t know how we could have been better,” said Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau after Minnesota was removed in five games by the Blues. “Their goaltender stopped 40 shots a game. And it’s not like the shots didn’t come from everywhere. They came from in close, from between the circles and from the perimeter. We took shots from everywhere. Tip your cap. He was just better than we were.”

For those Minnesota fans and followers who still want to blame (a) Boudreau, (b) Parise and Suter, (c) Devan Dubnyk or (d) all the other players Chuck Fletcher ever brought to St. Paul, just check out these numbers: Jake Allen had a 1.47 goals-against average and a .956 save percentage in Round 1 against the Wild. That was monstrous.

After the first round against Minnesota, Allen was No. 2 in the running for the Conn Smythe Trophy. Of course, he was well behind Pekka Rinne.

Rinne is a 6-foot-5, 34-year-old goaltender from Finland with 11 years of NHL experience. He has long been one of the two or three best netminders in the NHL. In 64 games with the Preds this season, he had a 2.42 goals against average and a .918 save percentage to go with a 31-19-9 record. It wasn’t his best season in the NHL, but it certainly wasn’t his worst.

Right now, however, he’s in the midst of his best playoff run ever. Period. He led the Preds when they swept Chicago in the first round and he made Jake Allen look like, well, Jake Allen again, in Round 2 against St. Louis. Now, he has a chance to take the Predators to a place the franchise has never been before – the Stanley Cup final.

Don’t be surprised if he pulls it off…

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