Mitch Linsley, Dump & Change May 28th, 2017 12pm
While ESPN and pretty much every other media outlet dick-ride the upcoming NBA finals matchup, I’m gonna shake things up and hit you with the hockey coverage you all deserve; you’re not gonna get this on Sportscenter.
Although Dump & Change’s primary focus is Minnesota sports, I feel obligated to cover the Stanley Cup finals; this is the state of hockey after all. This years matchup between the Preds and the Pens is a super intriguing series. The way these teams play and match up gives this series potential to be one for the ages. Both of squads are loaded with depth, star power and absolute stud goaltenders. As of now, the Conn Smythe trophy could go to like 5 different players, it’s unlikely that Sid gets it by default again. I’m gonna dissect these teams one by one then go over the matchups and let you decide who’s bringing home Lord Stanley’s Cup this year. The Pens are the slight favorite, Vegas has the moneyline set at Pittsburgh -155 but I would honestly call this series a pick ‘em, so obviously there’s a lot of potential for gamblers to really cash in here.
The Pittsburgh Penguins:
The defending champs have primed themselves all year for a deep playoff run. Despite the absence of defensive superstar Kris Letang, Pittsburgh has played shut down defense despite their reputation aa an offensive juggernaut. I could give you a million reasons as to why the Pens are back in the finals but I’m only gonna cover the big ones. Pittsburgh has been my pick to win the cup since February and to be honest, I was shocked that Ottawa took ‘em to 7, how about that double overtime by the way? What a fuckin game.
The Penguins have been getting points from their stars when they need it most. Not one of these guys has had a subpar playoff, even Kessel is out there flying every shift. The Pens have 5 players with 10 points or more in these playoffs: Evgeni Malkin (7 goals, 17 assists), Sidney Crosby (7 goals, 13 assists), Phil Kessel (7 goals, 12 assists), rookie Jake Guentzel (9 goals, 7 assists) and Justin Schultz rounding it out with 3 goals and 7 assists. Can we talk about Guentzel for second? This kid is gonna be a monster in this league, 3 game winners already in the playoffs and he’s only 22. Not to mention 9 goals on 38 shots, that’s a shooting percentage of 23.7. Let that sink in, if this kid shoots the puck, there’s pretty much a 1/4 chance it finds the back of the net. Un fucking real. The Penguins’ big guns are getting points in games more often than not and when they’re firing on all cylinders like they are right now, they encompass that identity of one of those all time great teams. The only big names somewhat underperforming on the stats sheet (in my opinion) are Kunitz, although he had the game 7 double OT winner so that should count as like 10 goals, and Carl Hagelin (If you wanna call him a big name) who has 1 goal in 11 games but I wouldn’t rule out a 3 or 4 point showing from the former Ranger throughout these finals. As of now, I would say Malkin is playing the best hockey in these playoffs and if the Pens win this thing, I would assume he takes home the Conn Smythe trophy. To be the best player on a team with superstars like Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel is pretty damn impressive. Geno’s gotta be one of the most underrated players in the NHL. Casual hockey fans don’t even know who the guy is and he has an MVP award (2009 I think) and carries this squad every regular season when Crosby misses 30 games with a concussion.
When Kris Letang went down mid season with a neck injury, it seemed the eastern conference opened up a little bit. The usual Norris Trophy contender is an absolute stud and can control the power play from the point. The Erik Karlsson-like blue liner is arguably a generational talent. In his absence, a lot of these upper echelon defenders have stepped up big time. Justin Schultz has 10 points already and has been a menace on the power play. His +3 rating looks somewhat unimpressive but when you take into account killing penalties, it shows the effect he can have 5 on 5. Olli Maatta (2 goals, 5 assists, +6 rating) and Ron Hainsey (1 goal, 4 assists, even rating) have contributed as well with timely assists and solid play in front of Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury, not to mention solid penalty killing. The Pens’ collective +/- in the postseason is a staggering +43. That’s insane. Pittsburgh is blowing teams out of the water, and they played Washington and Columbus who both posted top-5 regular season records.
Marc Andre Fleury and Matt Murray are both posting remarkable numbers regardless of how many games they’ve each started. Until that absolute shelling the Pens took in Ottawa last week, Fleury was their go-to guy. However Murray has been the man behind the mask ever since, letting up 2 goals or less in every game he’s started. In 15 games, the flower has posted some solid numbers, especially for him. He earned a 9-6 record, a GAA of 2.56 and a save percentage of 92.4 with 2 shutouts. Not bad at all. On the other hand, in Murray’s 4 starts, the 23 year old has put up a 3-1 record with a GAA of 1.35, a save percentage of 94.6 and a shutout. Those numbers are insane. Although this is a small sample size, I don’t see how Pittsburgh could not start him going into the finals. Plus if he sieves out, you’ve got a hell of a backup with veteran experience and cup credibility. Essentially the Penguins have a controversy at goaltender that every other team wishes they had. Fleury’s been a real pro about the whole thing too. He’s never voiced any complaints or argued about getting pulled that night in Ottawa. The team played awful in the first two periods when he got yanked and it cost him his starting job. The veteran does nothing but verbally support Murray and the team, he’s been a true team player who’s putting winning before himself, gotta respect that.
If there’s one thing you absolutely need to make a run at the Stanley Cup, its depth. And boy the Pens have a lot of it. Of 20 skaters to appear in 10 games or more this postseason, only 2 have negative +/- ratings and all but 1 have 2 or more points. The Pens 3rd and 4th lines have been doing everything they’re supposed to in order to win these games. These unsung heroes are playing a shutdown, blue collar brand of hockey against some of the best lines in the league and have tamed stars like Alex Ovechkin, Brandon Saad, TJ Oshie and Bobby Ryan throughout the postseason. Remember that game 7 in Washington? The sharpshooting Caps were held scoreless. Depth at center has been especially beneficial for Mike Sullivan’s squad; when you have former MVPs and scoring champions like Crosby and Malkin as your 1 and 2, opposing coaches are given a hell of a task when deciding where to play their shut down line. Honestly the only way this team could get better up the middle is if they added Connor McDavid or Jonathan Toews. The ageless wonder Matt Cullen has also elevated his game, as he’s been known to do in the postseason, the 40 year old has just 2 goals and 5 assists but has won over 56% of his faceoffs and has been remarkable defensively. Defensive back-enders like Trevor Daley (3 points, +4 rating), Ian Cole (7 points, +1 rating) and Brian Dumoulin (3 points, +3 rating) have also largely contributed to the team’s success. If all of your top 6 defenseman have positive +/- ratings, you’re most likely gonna win a lot of hockey games.
In short, the Nashville Predators are gonna have a hell of a time slowing down the Pens right now.
The Nashville Predators:
Who would’ve thought that the Nashville Predators would wind up in the final? If you saw this coming, get your ass to Vegas, now. If you predicted their first round sweep of the Blackhawks, you’re either a salty Wild fan or you’re absolutely full of shit. But that’s where we find ourselves at this juncture, the 8th seeded Predators just finished off the Anaheim Ducks in 6 after sweeping Chicago and putting away St. Louis in 6 as well. The scorching Preds have been making examples of the western conference and pissing off northern fanbases for all of May and June. Smashville made their way to the finals in just 16 games (12-4), that’s 3 games less than the Pens (12-7) so as far as wear and tear goes, Carrie Underwood’s… I mean Mike Fisher’s squad holds a slight advantage. Like Pittsburgh, the Preds are playing a high-octane, punch out brand of hockey that’s been almost impossible to slow down in these playoffs. Anaheim came the closest to putting them away, holding a 2-1 series lead but failed to get it done in a game 6 where they got absolutely smoked (I had Preds against the spread in that one, nbd). Approaching the postseason, I would say no one saw this coming, but hindsight’s 20-20 now that Nashville is absolutely on fire and is seeing lights out performances in all facets of the game. In my opinion this has been the most entertaining team to watch and you’d be hard pressed to make an argument that this won’t be a hell of a series. Anyways, here’s why Nashville should put up a pretty good fight against the defending Stanley Cup champs.
3 of the top 6 scorers for Nashville this postseason are defenseman. Unless you watched Nashville all season you would not have seen this coming. The scariest part? Offensive defenseman PK Subban is THIRD in scoring for defensemen. Roman Josi has been playing lights out, notching 5 goals and another 5 assist thus far along with Ryan Ellis with 4 goals and 7 assists. This is not a team you want to take penalties against because they will make you pay for it, ask Anaheim, St. Louis or Chicago. In addition, Subban has contributed only 2 goals but added 8 assist because that monster shot always seems to create rebounds. This defensive unit made life complete hell for Ducks goalie John Gibson the entirety of the conference finals. Not only are these defensemen scoring, they’re playing some pretty solid D too. NOT ONE defenseman has a minus rating, that’s ridiculous. You wanna hear the +/- for this D group? Ellis: +7, Josi: +4, Subban: + 6, Eckholm, +8, Irwin: +2, Weber: +3. That’s a total +30 for these defensemen, unreal. After his game 7 double OT winner against Ottawa, Pittsburgh’s Chris Kunitz told Pierre McGuire that the Preds have 3 Erik Karlsson’s. As ridiculous of a statement as that is, the exaggeration isn’t too far fetched. These guys are bad ass and the Penguins know it. This group is absolutely holding it down on the back end, making life pretty easy for Pekka Rinne who has also been unbelievable in the postseason.
The preds forwards are getting goals from all 4 lines, and their star players are lighting it up. Forwards with 10 points or more include Filip Forsberg (8 goals and 17 assists), Ryan Johansen (3 goals, 10 assists), Colton Sissons (5 goals, 5 assist) had a hat trick in game 6 against Anaheim, and Viktor Arvidsson (2 goals, 8 assists). This is scoring across the board, something you need if you wanna succeed in the postseason. Not only are the Preds forwards scoring a shit load of goals, they’re making defnesemen and goalies alike pay a physical toll. Is it ideal to have 2 goals waved off back to back for goaltender interference? Never, but it means the Predators’ forwards are getting in goalies faces, and in their heads. By the end of the Anaheim series, John Gibson was afraid to chase rebounds outside the crease in fear of getting pummeled by James Neal or Cody McLeod. Getting captain and centerman Mike Fisher will be huge for Nashville come game 1 of the finals. It’s his team’s first ever trip to the finals and you can bet the farm he’s gonna turn it up come Monday night, especially if Carrie Underwood sings the national anthem at their home games. All 4 forward lines have been absolutely flying all series, dominating the corners making it tough for opposing teams to break out of the zone, sounds a lot like the Pens huh?
Following what some would call an underwhelming regular season, goaltender Pekka Rinne has played lights out hockey since the playoffs began. Thus far he’s gotten the nod between the pipes every game for Nashville, posting a 12-4 record, a GAA of 1.70 while saving 94.1% of the shots he’s faced. If he put up those numbers in the regular season, he’d be a Vezina trophy favorite. Instead he turned it on when it matters most, putting himself in a position to be the first goalie to hoist the cup in Nashville, and pick up a Conn Smythe while he’s at it. It’s been strictly business for Rinne and I don’t see him faltering in the finals. His play has been contagious; teams can play with a lot more confidence when they know they have a brick wall behind them.
If any team is primed to give Pittsburgh a run for their money, it’s the Predators. You know Smashville is gonna be absolutely rocking all series, I might have to make a trip down there, it’s gonna be mardi gras all week, really putting the dirty in the dirty south.
How these teams match up:
Offensive punch: Advantage, Pittsburgh. Although the Predators have been lighting it up all series, the Penguins have some absolute superstars on the front end, unmatched by any other team.
Defensive play: Advantage, Nashville. Justin Schultz, Oilli Maatta and co. have played exceptional in these playoffs in Letang’s absence for the Pens. However, the 3 headed monster of Roman Josi, PK Subban and Ryan Ellis is gonna tear it up on both ends of the ice. I wish my team and 3 number 1 defenders.
Goaltending: Advantage, Nashville. No one is playing as good as Pekka Rinne right now. But the fact that Pittsburgh has 2 goalies capable of stealing a game helps a ton.
Veteran leadership: Advantage, Pittsburgh. Veteran leadership is huge when completing for a Stanley Cup. Crosby, Malkin, Cullen, Fleury, Kessel and Kunitz. Enough said.
Experience: Advantage, Pittsburgh. They’ve been here before. This team won a championship last year and hasn’t slowed down at all, retaining pretty much every player for this year’s squad. In addition, Crosby, Malkin, Kunitz and Fleury were also on the 2008-09 squad that won the Penguins’ first Stanley Cup since the days of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr.
Over/unders: Although these goalies have been lights out, I see this series being a shootout. Assuming the O/U is set at 5.5 each game, I see the over hitting more often than not. Bet the overs in this one people.
Overtime games: These teams are pretty evenly matched and I could see some late tying goals going down here. Get ready Bucci! 2 games will go into overtime.
Conn Smythe Trophy Winner: Although Crosby, Kessel or Fleury could light it up in the finals, Geno has been on fire and it’s’ gonna be hard to slow him down. Evgeni Malkin takes home playoffs MVP.
Moneyline: Although Nashville at +130 is really tempting, if we’re talking moneyline, you’re way safer off taking the Pens at -155.
Champion: This is gonna be a great matchup. The Pens have been here before and they know what it takes to win at this level. Penguins in 6 games.