With all due respect to the Ottawa Senators, who wildly overachieved this spring by coming within one goal of playing for the Stanley Cup, hockey fans everywhere owe Chris Kunitz a drink.
The veteran Penguins forward spared us all from having to brave an Ottawa/Nashville Stanley Cup final by scoring the double-overtime winner in Thursday’s Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final, propelling Pittsburgh into the National Hockey League’s championship series for the second straight year.
While Sens/Predators would have been a couple more weeks of neutral zone trap hell (think of that as the equivalent of soccer on ice), Penguins/Predators should really be something to watch.
Pittsburgh loves to play the freewheeling, open-ice style, evidenced by how the Penguins scored 15 more goals than any other team during the regular season. Meanwhile, Nashville has shown it is both willing and capable of playing either offensive or defensive hockey, averaging nearly 3 goals per game in the playoffs while limiting opponents to less than 2 goals per contest.
BetOnline has made the Penguins a -160 favorite to beat the Predators and claim their second straight Stanley Cup. Nashville pays +140 to crash the Pittsburgh party and earn its first Cup in franchise history.
The nice return on a Predators’ win is tempting, especially with Nashville having nearly a week off before the final while Pittsburgh is coming off back-to-back 7-game series.
But I still think the Penguins are the way to go if you’re betting on the Stanley Cup futures odds. Here are 5 reasons why.
And it’s true that the benefits of having a home crowd behind you, having the last change (helping coaches get the matchups they want) and playing in the comfort of your own arena can be neutralized a bit by the pressure to win and the road team simplifying its game, not worried about pleasing the fans.
However, you can’t ignore the fact that teams that held home ice advantage in the Stanley Cup Final have won 16 of the last 21 Cups. And I think home ice is an especially big deal in Pittsburgh’s case.
The Penguins were nearly invincible this season at PPG Paints Arena. They won 31 of the 41 games they played there during the regular season, with two overtime losses and two shootout losses thrown in. That means they earned at least one point in 35 of 41 home contests.
The playoffs have been no different. The Penguins are 7-3 in their own barn this spring, compared to just 5-4 on the road. At PPG, they’re averaging 3.1 goals per game in the postseason. Away from home, they’ve scored 9 goals in their last 5 outings.
Eighth-seeded Nashville has gotten this far without having home ice advantage, and they’re 5-3 on the road in the playoffs. But you can’t ignore the fact that the Preds are still under .500 on the year away from home (22-23-2). And the teams they beat in the first 3 rounds (Chicago, St. Louis and Anaheim) weren’t as dominant at home as the Penguins.
It’ll be hard for the Predators to win more than 1 game in Pittsburgh in this series, meaning the Pens will only need to steal 1 game in Nashville. I like Pittsburgh’s chances if that’s the case.
2. Cinderella Stories Don’t Usually End Well
A low seed like the Predators advancing to the Cup final isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. Unlike the NBA, where the best regular-season team in each conference routinely plays for the playoff title, hockey is full of Cinderella stories that defy the odds come springtime.
However, once Cinderella makes it to the big dance, the clock almost always strikes midnight. (Or they turn into a pumpkin. Or the glass slipper doesn’t fit. Use whichever analogy you want.)
The current NHL playoff format (top three teams in each of the four divisions, plus the next two-best teams in each conference qualify) has only been around for a few seasons, and Nashville is the first wild card team to make it to the final.
But since the NHL abandoned its divisional playoff format and went to a conference-style bracket in 1994, teams seeded sixth or lower who made the Cup final have lost 7 of those 8 series.
The only team seeded lower than fifth to win the Cup in that span was a No. 8 seed, the LA Kings in 2012. However, they beat another Cinderella team, No. 6 New Jersey.
When teams playing over their head meet teams with superior talent in the Stanley Cup Final, it usually doesn’t end well.
3. Nashville is Missing Ryan Johansen
The Predators paid a pretty heavy price on their way to beating Anaheim in the Western Conference final, losing forward Ryan Johansen for the playoffs due to a scary thigh injury.
Nashville managed to beat the Ducks despite being without Johansen for the final two games of that series, but it’s pretty common for players to “step up their game” in the short term to make up for an injury to one of their stars. The absence of one of their top scorers (Johansen tied Viktor Arvidsson for the team lead in points during the regular season, then recorded 14 points in 15 playoff games) is probably going to catch up with the Preds in the final.
To beat Pittsburgh, you’re going to have to score goals. Nashville’s played some very good defense throughout these playoffs, but silencing the NHL’s leading offense is asking a lot. The Predators don’t have a lot of offensive depth up front, and they can’t keep relying on their defensemen to carry the scoring load.
4. Pittsburgh Has the Better Goalie
Pekka Rinne has had a phenomenal postseason. His 12-4 record, 1.70 goals-against average and ridiculous .941 save percentage has made him one of the leading Conn Smythe Trophy (playoff MVP) contenders.
A hot goalie can make the difference in the Stanley Cup playoffs, but I’m not convinced Rinne’s incredible play is sustainable for another round. I simply don’t think he’s good enough to be this good for two months.
We’re talking about a guy whose career GAA is 2.38 and whose career save percentage is .917. During the regular season, those numbers were basically the same (2.42 GAA, .918 save percentage.) Rinne’s a decent goalie, but he didn’t suddenly become Martin Brodeur, Patrick Roy or Dominik Hasek.
Pittsburgh’s goalie, Matt Murray, might be. He backstopped the Penguins to the Stanley Cup last year as a rookie, then went 32-10 with a 2.41 GAA and .923 save percentage this season in his first full year in the NHL.
Since resuming the starter’s role from Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference final (Murray was injured during warmups of Game 1 of the first round), he’s actually put up even better numbers than Rinne. Murray has a 1.35 GAA and .946 save percentage in his 3 playoff games this spring.
Again, Rinne’s been sensational. But I’ve got a lot more faith in Murray to continue his stellar play than I do in the Predators veteran.
5. Pittsburgh Just Always Seems to Get It Done
Sorry, but it’s cliché time.
The Penguins lead or are near the top of the NHL in a lot of measurable categories, especially on offense. But it’s an intangible area that you can’t measure – heart – that might provide their biggest edge.
Just look at how much Pittsburgh has overcome to get here.
Start with the fact that the Pens won the Stanley Cup last year, leaving them a short summer before getting back to the grind in the fall. The other Cup finalist from last year, the Sharks, ran out of gas near the end of the regular season and were easy prey for the Oilers in the opening round of the playoffs. The two other teams to make the 2016 semis, the Lightning and the Blues, were out before the third round. (Tampa didn’t even make the playoffs.)
Then, the injuries. Sidney Crosby started the season on the shelf, returned to enjoy a dominant regular season and then was concussed in Round 2 versus the Capitals, where the Penguins were forced to play (and win) a game without him against the top seed in the entire playoffs. Star defenseman Kris Letang was lost for the year a month before the postseason began. The Pens had to play without their top three or four defense men at times throughout the year. And just when the playoffs began, Murray was injured in warmups, thrusting backup Fleury into the net for the first 2.5 rounds.
It’s not always easy with the Penguins. They had to go 7 games to beat Washington in Round 2, and again to beat Ottawa in the Eastern final. But when you’re dealing with all these injuries, it’s not going to be easy.
It’s a testament to coach Mike Sullivan, captain Crosby and an underrated supporting cast that they’ve even got this far. I’m not betting against them now.
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