Winning the opener is important in any playoff series, but it’s been an almost sure path to victory in recent Stanley Cup finals — and that’s great news for the Pittsburgh Penguins, who beat the Nashville Predators 5-3 in Game 1 on Monday. Excluding the series currently in progress, the Stanley Cup Final has been contested 11 times since the 2004-05 NHL lockout. In nine of those 11 contests, the team that won the first game went on to lift Lord Stanley’s shiny silver soup bowl.
One game does not a series make, however, and the Predators will still be skating in June because they had the resilience to navigate the treacherous slog of the NHL playoffs. So what can Nashville do to come back and win hockey’s most hallowed piece of silverware? Let’s have a look.
The Pens were series favorites even before the puck dropped in Game 1. Pittsburgh entered the playoffs with the second-most regular-season points of any team, and the reigning Stanley Cup champion had its superstars playing up to their reputations. Sidney Crosby, despite suffering a concussion in the Penguins’ second-round series against the Washington Capitals, has been his usual otherworldly self. He has 22 points in 19 games, eight of which have come on the powerplay, and is getting more than 19 minutes of ice time per game — and he’s not even the team’s leading candidate for the Conn Smythe trophy as the playoff MVP. (That would be Evgeni Malkin, whose 25 playoff points lead the league.) It was always going to be tough for Nashville to compete on top-end talent and offensive firepower.
So if the Preds are going to attack the Penguins’ weaknesses, they’ll probably start with Pittsburgh’s question marks in net.
During warmups before Game 1 of its first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, Pittsburgh suffered what looked to be a massive blow when preferred goalie Matt Murray went down with an injury. That meant the Pens would have to rely on the, um, mercurial Marc-Andre Fleury until Murray returned. Fleury ended up playing pretty well; in 15 games, he saved 92.4 percent of the shots he faced and recorded a quality start 57.1 percent of the time, both considerably higher than his career playoff numbers. But he seemed to be put on a tight leash once Murray got healthy. One shaky start, and coach Mike Sullivan might quickly bring in Murray, last season’s playoff hero.
That bad start happened, in Pittsburgh’s third game against Ottawa — Fleury gave up four goals on just nine first-period shots — and a healthy Murray was inserted between the pipes. Murray has been great in the playoffs overall, stopping 93.6 percent of the shots he’s faced and recording four quality starts in five chances. But he wasn’t exactly spectacular as Nashville chipped away at Pittsburgh’s lead on Monday. The Pens’ goaltending situation might be where the seeds of a Predators comeback are planted.
And the Preds have shown plenty of gumption during these playoffs. Not only did they battle back to a tie after going down 3-0 in Game 1 (before ultimately losing), but they’ve also spent all playoffs as the underdogs, having entered the postseason with the 16th-best record in the 16-team field.
For Nashville, beating the odds still depends heavily on defense and goaltending. Shaky play in Game 1 aside, the sublime shot-stopping that netminder Pekka Rinne displayed in the first round has held strong throughout the playoffs; he’s turning aside 93.4 percent of the shots he’s faced, just a hair behind the mark of his opponent, Murray (who’s started five postseason games to Rinne’s 17). If the Predators end up winning the cup, Rinne will almost certainly win the Conn Smythe trophy.
And in front of Rinne, Nashville’s defense has been taking care of business as well. The Preds are tied for giving up the fewest goals per game of any team in the playoffs (2.0) and are allowing the third-fewest shots per game (28.6). Even though the Predators lost Game 1, that stingy defense was on full display during the second period, when they surrendered zero shots — the first time a team had been held shotless in a Stanley Cup final period since at least 1958.
But as terrific as Rinne and friends have been in their own zone, you can’t win games if you can’t put the puck in the other team’s net. And the Predators have to keep doing that with the same great efficiency they showed throughout the Western Conference playoffs if they want to keep the finals competitive. Nashville’s attack is balanced: The Predators boast seven players with double-digit point tallies (more than the Penguins have), three of whom play on the blue line. Defensemen Ryan Ellis, P.K. Subban and Roman Josi are all averaging at least 24 minutes of ice time, and they’ve all scored at least two goals. And that trio of high-scoring defensemen aren’t the only ones putting points on the board — the Preds also get balanced scoring from their forwards.
During the regular season, the Preds relied on Viktor Arvidsson, Ryan Johansen and Filip Forsberg for the bulk of their offensive production up front. All three have continued to produce in the playoffs, although a leg injury in Game 4 of Nashville’s Western Conference finals series against the Anaheim Ducks put an end to Johansen’s season — and erased Nashville’s most gifted offensive player from the Stanley Cup Final’s equation.
Lucky for the Preds, yeoman center Colton Sissons has performed above his pay grade in Johansen’s absence. His hat trick in Game 6 of the Anaheim series helped punch Nashville’s ticket to the finals, and his third-period goal Monday was part of the Preds’ push to (briefly) tie Game 1. It remains to be seen whether the Preds can rely on a guy who has scored more points in 17 playoff games than he did over 58 regular-season games. But he’s found his scoring touch at the right time, scoring on a gaudy 29 percent of the shots he’s taken in the playoffs, and Nashville needs him to keep up that pace.
So although Pittsburgh has a clear edge, this series is bound to be tight either way — the Pens and Preds rank 1st and 2nd, respectively, in goals scored per game during the playoffs, and Nashville is still riding the hot-goalie wave. Crosby and Malkin will do all they can to win a third Stanley Cup together, solidifying themselves as one of the great duos in NHL history. Subban will try to make Montreal look even more foolish for giving up on him in favor of an older, slower model. And Rinne, arguably the most important player in Nashville’s short history, will look to add a cherry to the top of what’s been one of the best goaltending performances in recent playoff history.
Game 1 of the final may be a good crystal ball for the series’ eventual winner, but if Nashville plays to its potential, we should be in for even more drama before the Cup is hoisted high and skated around the rink.