Nashville Predators (94 regular-season points, second wild card in Western Conference) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (111 regular-season points, second, Metropolitan Division)
Why you have to watch: These two teams are trying to make history. If the Penguins win the Stanley Cup, they will become the first repeat champions of the salary-cap era. If the Predators prevail, they would win the first championship in franchise history and would be the NHL's first No. 16 seed to pull it off. ... It's also a fascinating matchup. The Predators have the best defense in the league, led by P.K. Subban and Roman Josi. Pittsburgh's defense has been crushed by injury and is missing its best player, Kris Letang. The Penguins forwards, meanwhile, are led by two franchise centers in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin -- while Nashville is without its best center, Ryan Johansen, who will miss the remainder of the postseason because of a thigh injury. A debate will play out live -- which would you rather have, great centers or great defensemen? ... For the first time, two American coaches will be squaring off for a Stanley Cup. Nashville's Peter Laviolette will try to stake his claim as the best American coach to ever run a bench. Pittsburgh's Mike Sullivan has expertly guided a banged-up team through three rounds, establishing him as one of the three or four best coaches in hockey right now.
Head to head: These two teams split their two games against each other this season, with each one winning convincingly. The Predators beat the Penguins 5-1 on Oct. 22 and the Penguins evened things up with a 4-2 victory on Jan. 31.
Injury fallout: This is the biggest factor of all in this series. One of the challenges the NHL faces is that the play on the ice gets progressively worse as the playoffs advance because of the grind and injuries. Both of these teams are dealing with major injuries that will affect this series. The biggest may be Johansen's, since his absence gives the Penguins a huge advantage at center. Johansen is out after undergoing emergency surgery because of acute compartment syndrome in his left thigh. ... The Predators are hopeful that center Mike Fisher will be ready for the start of the finals. He's been out since taking a knee to the head from Anaheim Ducks defenseman Josh Manson in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals. ... The Predators also lost talented forward Kevin Fiala for the entirety of the playoffs after he broke his femur in the second round. ... The Penguins' biggest injury is Letang's neck injury, which removed him from this entire playoff run and forced the Penguins into playing defense by committee. ... Former Predator Patric Hornqvist appears close to returning from his upper-body injury. He took part in warmups before Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Ottawa Senators but didn't play. ... Penguins defenseman Justin Schultz is playing through an upper-body injury. He returned to the lineup in time for Game 7 and scored a crucial goal. ... Pittsburgh winger Tom Kuhnhackl (upper body) skated on his own Thursday but remains out, as does defenseman Chad Ruhwedel (concussion).
Goalie advantage: Teams don't advance this far without great goaltending. These two teams have both had top-notch performances in net; they've just taken different paths. ... The duo of Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray have shared the heavy lifting for the Penguins. Fleury stepped in for Murray after the latter was injured in warm-ups before the first game of the playoffs and carried the Penguins at times, especially against the Washington Capitals in the conference semifinals. ... Since regaining his starting job in Game 4 of the conference finals, Murray has been outstanding for the Penguins, posting a .946 save percentage in four starts. ... Predators goalie Pekka Rinne has been an absolute wall for Nashville, playing all 16 games and leading all goalies who have started more than five games this postseason with a .941 save percentage. Murray vs. Rinne is just about a draw, even with Rinne entering the finals red hot. The Penguins might even have a slight edge because they have two goalies who have led their teams to Stanley Cups in Fleury and Murray.
Coaching advantage: This series highlights the two best American coaches in the game right now in Nashville's Peter Laviolette and Pittsburgh's Mike Sullivan, both Massachusetts natives. ... Laviolette, who won the Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006 and led the Philadelphia Flyers to the Cup finals in 2010, became only the fourth coach in NHL history to lead three teams to the finals. He has the Predators playing with confidence and speed, hallmarks of a Laviolette team. He's a future Hall of Famer. ... Sullivan was masterly in guiding the Penguins through injuries to advance this far. He has constantly made tweaks and adjustments, showing his -- and his team's -- versatility and ability to win games in a number of ways. As great a job as he did last year, when he took over the team in December and then led it to a championship, his performance this spring has been even more impressive, considering all the injuries he has had to deal with. He just rolls up his sleeves and finds ways to put his team in position to win. There's no edge for either team behind the bench. These are two great coaches.
Prediction: This will be a fantastic, fast-paced series highlighting players with world-class speed and skill. As good as the Predators are, the Penguins have shown endless reserves of will and fortitude during this impressive run. In a close series, Crosby and Malkin have earned the benefit of the doubt. They always seem to find a way. Penguins in seven games.