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Stanley Cup final preview: Don't count out Predators

Nashville players celebrate after beating the Ducks in the Western Conference final to advance to the Stanley Cup final, where they meet the Penguins. [Associated Press]
Nashville players celebrate after beating the Ducks in the Western Conference final to advance to the Stanley Cup final, where they meet the Penguins. [Associated Press]
Published May 29, 2017

Either way, this Stanley Cup final is going to be historic.

You have the Sidney Crosby-led Penguins, who can become the first team to repeat as champions since the 1997-98 Red Wings. Nobody had even made back-to-back finals since the 2008-09 Wings-Penguins rematch.

Standing in Pittsburgh's way are the Predators, in their first Cup final. They had won just three playoff series in their first 17 seasons but matched that total this spring with an exciting blend of speed and skill. While Nashville is the first 16th seed to make the final, it could be the team to beat in this series.

"I don't think Nashville is an underdog in any shape or form," TSN analyst Craig Button said. "Anyone who feels that way hasn't been watching the playoffs. I think they've got a great chance."

The Penguins, as veteran and gritty as they are, are bound to run out of gas coming off two straight seven-game series. They've managed to get this far without top defenseman Kris Letang, and several forwards missed time, including Crosby.

The Preds are deep, especially defensively, boasting one of the league's most active blue lines.

Should be one heck of a series.

Here are a few things to watch:

The captain

Who else? Crosby is still considered the best player in the world (Connor McDavid a close second). He was sidelined early in the postseason with a concussion but ranks second behind teammate Evgeni Malkin with 20 points in 18 games, assisting on the double-OT winner by Chris Kunitz on Thursday against the Senators. Expect Crosby and Malkin to get a heavy dose of a shutdown pairing of P.K. Subban and Mattias Ekholm, which neutralized Patrick Kane-Jonathan Toews, and Vladimir Tarasenko in earlier rounds.

Getting offensive

Speaking of Subban, the Predators defense is extremely dangerous offensively. Ryan Ellis (11 points) and Roman Josi (10 points) have combined for nine goals. While Filip Forsberg is their leading scorer (15 points) with Ryan Johansen (thigh surgery) out, a top challenge for the Penguins is neutralizing Nashville's blue line.

Net game

Predators goalie Pekka Rinne has been spectacular this postseason with a 1.70 goals against average and .941 save percentage. He has allowed fewer than three goals in 11 of 16 games. He has a stout defense corps in front of him, but he'll need to stay on top of his game with Pittsburgh averaging a playoff-most 3.05 goals per game. The Pens rode Marc-Andre Fleury through the first two rounds after Matt Murray got hurt. A midseries switch back to Murray helped lift Pittsburgh past Ottawa in seven games in the Eastern Conference final. It's Murray's net now.

U.S.A.

It's the first time two U.S.-born coaches are in the Cup final. The Predators' Peter Laviolette has taken his third team to the final (Carolina, Philadelphia). Pittsburgh's Mike Sullivan is a former Lightning assistant under another U.S.-born coach, John Tortorella.

Prediction: Preds in seven