Friday, May 26, 2017

Stanley Cup final preview

Six weeks ago, the NHL playoffs started with 16 teams. Now, after last night's epic double-overtime win by the Penguins, we're down to two, and the Stanley Cup Final is here. Well, not quite here, because this is the NHL and we all have to wait around for a few days for anything to start, but it's close enough for a preview.

There's no denying that this year's final presents an intriguing matchup. In one corner, you've got the defending champs, bruised and exhausted but still fighting to become the first repeat winners in nearly two decades. In the other, a team that went into the postseason with the worst record among playoff teams and had never even been out of the second round in franchise history.

It's been an unpredictable ride through this year's playoffs. Well, unless you read our third-round preview, which nailed the winner and games played for each of the conference finals series. Consider this your spoiler warning: We'll get to the Cup Final prediction at the end, so skip the last section if you want to be surprised.

In this corner: The Pittsburgh Penguins (50-21-11, 111 points, +49 goals differential excluding shootouts), who posted the second best regular-season record in the league.

The road so far: It's been a weird one, thanks to the NHL's unique playoff format. The Penguins faced a pair of top-five teams in the opening two rounds, knocking off the Blue Jackets easily and then dispatching the Presidents' Trophy-winning Capitals in seven. That earned them a date with the 12th-ranked Senators, who gave them everything they could handle. And now they close against the 16-seed.

The history books: The Penguins are chasing their fifth Stanley Cup in franchise history. In addition to becoming the first back-to-back champs since the 97/98 Red Wings, they'll be looking to tie the Blackhawks with their third title of the salary cap era.

Injury report: They've been banged up pretty badly all postseason, although they had several players return to the lineup during the Ottawa series. Patric Hornqvist missed Game 7 but was rumored to be close, so he could be back soon. Chad Ruhwedel sounds less likely. And of course, Kris Letang remains out for the playoffs after neck surgery.

One player to watch: Evgeni Malkin. The second half of the league's best one-two punch down the middle doesn't get quite as much attention as Sidney Crosby, but he's been almost as good for most of their careers. During this year's playoffs, he's been even better, leading the team in scoring and looking dangerous just about every time he's on the ice. Crosby still doesn't look completely right after suffering that concussion against the Capitals; he was great on the powerplay against Ottawa but less noticeable at 5-on-5. Malkin is rolling right now, and with Phil Kessel on his wing he'll give the Predators nightmares.

Key number: 95.0%—The Penguins' penalty-kill rate against Ottawa, which pretty much won them the series. The Senators were shut out completely at 5-on-4, with their only powerplay goal coming with a two-man advantage. That mismatch felt more like Ottawa being bad than Pittsburgh being good, but the Predators have been struggling on the powerplay all postseason long. If the Penguins can hold a major edge on special teams, Nashville is going to have a very tough time making up enough ground elsewhere to stay in this.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

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