The Stanley Cup gets underway tonight. Game 1 between the host Penguins and visiting Predators starts after 8 PM Eastern Standard Time. It should be a great series. I think it has the potential to go seven.
So, what are my thoughts?
-The Pens aim for the first repeat since the Red Wings (1997, ’98) when they swept the Flyers and Caps for back to back titles with the second emotional for former injured star defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov.
-The Penguins are here due to coach Mike Sullivan pushing the right buttons. Despite a slew of injuries that has excluded ace defenseman Kris Letang and other forwards in and out of the lineup, Sullivan has managed his club well to get them back to this point. He made the right call going to Matt Murray to turn around a closely fought Eastern Conference Final which also featured a classic Game 7 that went to double overtime before 37-year old three-time champ Chris Kunitz became the oldest player to score a OT winner in a deciding seventh game to help the Pens advance to defend their Cup.
-Sullivan moved Kunitz up to the Sidney Crosby line during Game 7 and it paid huge dividends. Kunitz had gone 34 games without a goal. He entered with only two assists in the postseason. So of course, he scored twice and had a assist with the seeing eye fluky one-timer that was more a change up from a great Crosby pass sneaking past heroic Senators goalie Craig Anderson for the emotional winner.
-The Pens got back Justin Schultz who scored a key power play goal on a butchered call in which Phil Kessel embellished to draw a interference minor on Dion Phaneuf. But the Sens showed resilience fighting back to tie it with Ryan Dzingel finishing a Erik Karlsson shot off the goalpost to force sudden death. It was Ottawa’s last stand. They barely got shots on Murray in the two overtimes. The Pens relentlessly attacked with Anderson saving his team several times until finally Kunitz won it.
-Pittsburgh gets former Predator Patric Hornqvist back tonight. That is a good storyline with Hornqvist facing James Neal. They were traded for each other. The biggest storyline is Crosby trying to lead his team to a repeat against the upstarts from Nashville. The third eighth seed to ever reach this stage. Edmonton and Los Angeles the other two.
-P..K. Subban is the larger than life dream that NBC will love. The former Canadien who was traded for Shea Weber straight up helping anchor the league’s best defense against the very high scoring and supremely skilled Pens led by two Conn Smythe winners in Crosby and leading postseason scorer Evgeni Malkin. It should be intriguing to see what wins out. The Nashville top 4 of Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm, Subban or the Pens dynamic offense of Crosby, Malkin, Kessel with a very balanced core featuring Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary, Hornqvist, Kunitz along with overlooked depth centers Nick Bonino and Mr. Game 7 Matt Cullen.
-Without top pivot Ryan Johansen, the Preds will need continued dominance from Filip Forsberg along with more finishing from Viktor Arvidsson and Neal. They’ve gotten large contributions from Colton Sissons, Austin Watson and Colin Wilson.
-How much impact will a healthy Mike Fisher have for the Preds? He is back in his second SCF in 10 years. Not the same force but still a glue piece who will be important on draws, penalty kill and at 5-on-5. He can help them at the center position.
-The big match up features two Stanley Cup winning coaches with the Pens’ Sullivan winning last year after taking over in December 2015. The Preds will lean on Peter Laviolette, who guided the Hurricanes to victory in ’05-06. He also got the Flyers there in 2010 before they lost in six at home to the Blackhawks.
-Can Pekka Rinne continue his amazing run or will the Pens solve him? He’s the leading playoff MVP candidate. It would be nice to see him win.
-I see it being a long hard fought series. I will take the Pens’ experience in 7. But will pull for the Preds. They must win in 6. It should be fun!