Here we are again: on the one hand, we’ve got a team well established as a winner, with 4 Cups to its name and a handful of proven international superstars on their side. On the other, we’ve got a team that’s never been here before, has a roster (mostly) full of near-nobodies, and plays in a city the average person doesn’t associate with hockey. This is how it’s been each year for kind of a while now.
Recently we’ve had Pittsburgh, Chicago, New York, and New Jersey in Finals against San Jose, Tampa, Los Angeles, and Los Angeles respectively. Going back to the Canucks/Bruins series, only the Blackhawks/Bruins series doesn’t really fit this mold. True the Lightning and Kings each have at least a Cup, but how many regular folks know that (or care for that matter?)
It would have been horrendous for ratings and league popularity to have the Ottawa Senators find a berth in the Stanley Cup Final. It’s also what I wanted most, with Nashville clinching first. A Final with two Cup virgins, each from small markets, each franchise born in the 90s, and each with a defensive superstar I’d love to see hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup. Alas, it was not to be, and in their stead, we’ve got Goliath. At least there’s a clear underdog here to root for, and root for them I shall.
Penguins vs Senators: This was entirely expected. In fact, along with the following series, I predicted this one on the nose. The Penguins, beaten and bruised, haemorrhaging players all playoffs long, managed to use their intangibles and their star power to narrowly win the war of attrition that is fighting the Ottawa Senators and their stifling system. It was a rollercoaster of a series, with Ottawa and Pittsburgh exchanging wins before a complete and utterly devastating blowout put the Sens on the brink. In true pesky Sens fashion, they suffocated their way to a Game Six comeback win, and, surprisingly, turned a boring first period of Game Seven into an all-time legendary game, answering the Pens goals with quick responses all the way to a marathon double-overtime finish.
I picked the Penguins to win, but my heart was screaming for the Senators. Weird, I know. I don’t hate this Senators team. Both Buffalo and Ottawa are so far removed from 2006-07 that it doesn’t feel relevant anymore. I like Erik Karlsson. More than anything else, I wanted a new team to win, and I discovered that I’d be happy for the Senators if they pulled it off. Now, much of that is satisfaction from an indirect blow to the Leafs, but hey, I like to have fun. On the other hand, it’s probably best the Senators didn’t win. The NHL is a copycat league, and boy, I don’t want to see this kind of hockey become the norm. Not again.
2017-05-13; OTT 2, PIT 1 OT
2017-05-15; OTT 0, PIT 1
2017-05-17; PIT 1, OTT 5
2017-05-19; PIT 3, OTT 2
2017-05-21; OTT 0, PIT 7
2017-05-23; PIT 1, OTT 2
2017-05-25; OTT 2, PIT 3 2OT
PIT defeats OTT: 4-3
Prediction: Penguins in 7 ✓✓
Ducks vs Predators: We’re in a new era. For a couple years around the lockout, the Anaheim Ducks more often than not faced the Detroit Red Wings in the playoffs. Half of the time, they’d advance. Now, they seem to run into the Nashville Predators every other year, but they never win. In three meetings, the Preds have owned the Ducks 12 wins to 7. That’s not to say this one was lopsided. In fact, the team that scored first went on to lose 4 of 6 games. This was an evenly matched, blow and parry type of series, with the counter being strong enough to overpower the initial attacker. This was a feisty battle, which is expected with these Ducks, having usurped the role of the NHL’s bullies from a combination of Vancouver, Boston, and Philly. The Predators were somewhat lucky to escape from this series with minimal injuries, though those they did suffer could be crippling; they’re missing their top 2 centers.
For Nashville though, it was their insane depth that carried them through Anaheim. With an all-time great defensive line, albeit with Anaheim’s in 2nd right behind them, a host of young wingers (hello, Milwaukee Admirals) and the continued absolutely stellar play of Pekka Rinne, they simply outmatched the Ducks. Any other team, perhaps, and the Stanley Cup is the Ducks to win. With a shaky goaltending performance from Jonathan Bernier and the young John Gibson out with injury, it’s hard to imagine the Ducks having an answer to four lines of onslaught from the Preds, but weaker netminding has won Cups. The Ducks, somehow, seem to have a wide open Stanley Cup window, despite an aging core and old-school coach. They’re filled to the brim with young talent that, in a few years, might just give Southern California another Cup.
2017-05-12; NSH 3, ANA 2 OT
2017-05-14; NSH 3, ANA 5
2017-05-16; ANA 1, NSH 2
2017-05-18; ANA 3, NSH 2 OT
2017-05-20; NSH 3, ANA 1
2017-05-22; ANA 3, NSH 6
NSH defeats ANA: 4-2
Prediction: Predators in 6 ✓✓
A newbie and a repeat appearance. This should be good, no matter what happens.
Advanced stats herein are taken from March 1st through the end of the third round, with the rankings being among the two teams remaining.
C4. Nashville Predators vs M2. Pittsburgh Penguins: This will be fun. As I alluded to above, this is a real David vs. Goliath story. The Pittsburgh Penguins are the defending Stanley Cup champions looking to become the first team to repeat since 1998. They’re also making their third return trip to the Final in their history, which is weird — the Penguins only seem to make the Final in pairs of seasons. The Nashville Predators are the first lowest-ranked seed to make the Stanley Cup Final, and are making the franchise’s first appearance as well, having previously never even played for a Conference Championship.
The thing about hockey is, though, that this is far more even of a match-up than it appears when comparing each franchise and their histories up to and including this past regular season. The Predators have steamrolled their way to this point, losing just four games; the Penguins made easy work of their nearby interstate rivals, while getting into seven game slugfests with their next two opponents. Looking at how banged up each team is, their deficiencies balance out: Nashville has no center depth, while the Penguins are in shambles on the back end. They’ve also deployed both of their goaltenders to decent results, as Matt Murray returned from a long injury from round one.
Meanwhile, in Nashville, Pekka Rinne has held fort for three rounds — we haven’t seen a sniff of Juuse Saros. The Predators wingers are a deep collection of NHL vets and nobody rookies, whereas the Penguins are looking at promoted depth at this point. To look at positions of strength, you see the Nashville blue line being dominant and as previously mentioned, in a class of its own. In Pittsburgh, you’ve got the all-star one-two punch of Crosby and Malkin. The Preds had done a great job of shutting down others’ offensive talents — Kane, Tarasenko, Getzlaf — but, I said the same of the Sharks last year. The Penguins were just too quick to counter. If Pekka Rinne stands on his head, the Penguins are toast. If Crosby and Malkin play like, well, like they have been, then the Predators have a tough road ahead. I like the Predators and I’m rooting for them. The city deserves a Cup. P.K. Subban deserves a Cup. I want to see Mike Fisher (or proxy captain) hand it off to Pekka Rinne in full goalie gear. I want a Cup champion wearing a color other than black or red. I want a new team to win a Cup. It’s about time.
That said, Penguins in six. Yeah, they’re going to repeat. I picked against them last year because of what my heart said; I won’t make that mistake again.
5v5 Corsi, Score-Adjusted
NSH: Kevin Fiala, Ryan Johansen, Mike Fisher
PIT: Kris Letang, Patric Hornqvist
2016-10-22; PIT 1, NSH 5
2017-01-31; NSH 2, PIT 4
Nothin’ but gold, baby. In about two weeks, we’ll see a team decked out in gold lift the ultimate silver prize, the Stanley Cup. And, shortly after that, the NHL will welcome another gold team to the party — the Vegas Golden Knights. This seems less than unintentional, now that I put it all out there…
Final Fun Facts & Frivolity Field
Cup Virgins: 1 — NSH,
Cup Champions since 2006: 1 — PIT (’09, ’16)
Longer (or, only) Cup drought: NSH — 17 seasons
Just like last year, our final two teams’ logos are facing each other in battle, though I think they look far more intense this time. Here’s hoping for a different result than before.