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Penguins vs. Predators: Three Takes

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Monday night. May 29. A date most loyal, die-hard Pittsburgh hockey fans had circled in their calendars as the night their Penguins would defend Lord Stanley, has finally come. The 2017 Stanley Cup Final is set to begin.

The original assassins of the rink, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and company will look to tackle Game 1 in the chase for the four most important wins a hockey team can corral.  In the Penguins way, a scrappy Nashville Predators squad with Cinderella stories, a country music theme and a 12-4 playoff record, including a sweep over the top-seeded Chicago Blackhawks.

Here are three factors to look for in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.

1. For a Blue Line, the Predators sure can play offense.
Ryan Ellis, P.K. Subban, Roman Josi and Mattias Ekholm make up the highlight names of the Nashville defensive unit.  The four also stand in the top eight in scoring this year for the Western Conference champs.  In the regular season, Nashville tied with San Jose for most points scored by defensemen (181). 

“We take advantage of getting up ice and getting the puck on net,” said Mattias Ekholm, who has eight points (all assists) this postseason.  “That is the strongpoint of our game.  We take advantage, all of us, offensively, and getting chances in the offensive zone.”

The most recognized face of the bunch, P.K. Subban, is tied with Josi on the blue line offensively this postseason with 10 points, including two goals.  Josi leads the team with postseason goals at five.

“I think that just understanding how we need to play.  We’ve had a system in place all season.  It’s been tweaked here and there, but it’s pretty much the same system that we started out with.  I think seeing the success from our system, and us executing and figuring out how to do that against good teams, once you see the success in that it builds confidence.  We just have to continue to play that way and believe in this system.”

That system, cultivated by Peter Laviolette, is a five-man zone-to-zone campaign.  The head man for Nashville, Laviolette, is such a staunch supporter of that system, that only on an even-strength or man-up break will his offense even think to create.  The two defenders, by proxy, become two offensive attackers with defensive tendencies.

 “We definitely run a unique system,” said Josi.  “It’s worked for us.  We are here now because of it.”

Laviolette broke down the pairings you should expect to see tomorrow, which have been successful for the squad over the course of the season.

“I think the obvious was to try to put Roman Josi and P.K. together, right?  As it turned out, the numbers and the eyeball all pointed to Roman and Ryan (Ellis) being a terrific pair,” the coach said.  “Ekholm and Subban being a really, really big, strong, tough pair to play against. They’ve been able to handle a lot of minutes and a lot of big opponents.  We really haven’t changed from that probably in maybe five months, six months.”

Matt Irvin and Yannick Weber make up the other most likely pairing of the blue line the Predators will reveal Monday night.

2. Pekka Rinne vs. Matt Murray: Penguins advantage?
Craig Anderson was solid.  Craig Anderson was also extremely lucky.  The 34-year-old veteran that will stand in front of the net for Nashville Monday night is not Craig Anderson.  Some would say he wishes to have that gravitas.

A 12-year Predators goalie, Rinne has given up a league-worst 445 goals in his last three seasons combined.  The postseason has been much kinder to the netminder, as he’s given up 28 goals in 16 games played, which is a far-cry from his 38 goals given up in 14 games in the 2015-16 playoffs.

“I’ve never been in the Finals before, so I would say this is the best hockey I’ve seen in front of me in my career,” said Rinne.

Rinne talked about his and, at times, his team’s struggles in the regular season,

“For a long time, we were trying to find consistency, and at times, we didn’t do a good job with it.  I feel like this postseason we’ve been really consistent and solid and playing really good hockey for 16 games now.”

Though Rinne is the veteran, Murray carries with him the Stanley Cup experience, winning last year, giving up 11 total goals in six games to San Jose. 

“I think it pays to have the experience, but you have to use it,” said Murray, who allowed just seven goals in five games to Ottawa.  “It’s been a rollercoaster in general this season.  A lot of injuries, a lot of ups and downs.  At the end of the day I feel fortunate to be a part of this, and fortunate enough to come back stronger from my injury.”

Despite how great Marc-Andre Fleury played in Murray’s absence in the first two series, the right goalie for this job will be in net Monday night, and that guy—a goaltender that holds a career 17-7 postseason record—has the clear advantage over a goaltender that has yet to face an offensive surge like the Penguins can bring, this postseason. 

3. Swedish Star Power
All-in-all eight Swedish hockey players will be involved in this Stanley Cup.  While the steel city’s favorite Swedes Patric Hornqvist and Carl Hagelin will take the ice for the Penguins, it is Filip Forsberg that everybody has their eye on the Nashville side of things.

Forsberg has shattered club records with eight goals and 15 points this postseason, terrorizing the Western Conference in the process. 

Scoring a goal in four of his last five games, the five-year youngster with a +/- of 17 is not afraid to play both ends of the ice, with 11 hits and 13 blocks in the postseason.

“He just got a knack for scoring goals,” said Hornqvist of Forsberg.  “He’s got great hands, a big body.  You have to play him hard, get in front of him, otherwise he’s going to get a shot through.”

Hornqvist, who expects to be back from an upper-body injury that has kept him out for the Ottawa series, talked about the Swedish attack on this year’s Stanley Cup.

“It just shows that there are a lot of Swedes in the NHL nowadays,” he said.  “In this series, there are so many Swedes and it’s cool to see.  You grow up in Sweden and people like Peter Forsburg are our idols.  Every kid grew up wanting to be like that.  It’s great to get to go out there and represent our country like this.”

Hornqvist, who was the receiving end of the James Neal trade three years ago, has turned out to be an offensive power for the Pens, scoring four goals with seven points in the 13 playoff contests he’s been a part of this season.

“To have (Hornqvist) is a big advantage for us,” said Conor Sheary.  “Obviously, he’s a scoring threat, and brings a lot to our offensive attack.  We’re a better team with him, sure.”

Puck drops in Game 1 at 8 PM.

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