After securing the first Stanley Cup finals appearance in franchise history, the Nashville Predators had three full days to sit and wait before learning who their opponent would be. Though that was enough time to plan for both the Pittsburgh Penguins and Ottawa Senators, the degree of difficulty was likely raised when the defending Stanley Cup champions punched their ticket with a 3-2 double-overtime win in Game 7 Thursday night.
"You're a champion until somebody knocks you out," said one NHL scout. "So I'm going with Muhammad Ali until someone knocks him out."
There's no shortage of compelling matchups in a series that will feature a number of the game's biggest stars. Having the reigning champs meet a franchise making its finals debut is enough to generate plenty of intrigue. But it's the specific player matchups on hockey's grandest stage that could ultimately decide who ends up hoisting the sport's most cherished trophy.
Here are some of the matchups worth following:
The Predators presumed they were acquiring a run-and-gun playmaker when they traded for Subban last summer in a deal that shocked the hockey world. But on a pairing with Ekholm, Subban has transformed into arguably the most formidable shutdown defenseman of this postseason.
Subban has provided his signature offensive flair, collecting two goals and 10 points in 16 playoff games. But his greatest contribution has been as a defensive stalwart. Anaheim Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf practically carried his team into the Western Conference finals with five goals and 10 points in their seven-game second-round series against the Edmonton Oilers. Matched up against Subban and Ekholm, Getzlaf was held to four points (all assists), three of which came in Anaheim's 3-2 overtime win in Game 2.
Against the Chicago Blackhawks, the Subban-Ekholm combo did a masterful job, as did the Predators' top pair of Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis. Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Artemi Panarin and Marian Hossa combined for five points in four games in Nashville's first-round sweep.
Nashville's defense will have its hands full against Malkin. First in playoff scoring, the dynamic Russian has been a force skating alongside Kessel, who is tied with Getzlaf for third in postseason scoring. Assuming Subban and Ekholm are assigned to Malkin's line, that leaves Josi and Ellis responsible for Sidney Crosby, who is second in playoff scoring, and Jake Guentzel, whose nine goals lead the playoffs.
"You've got to have somebody who can match the speed of Kessel," said Cam Connor, who won a Cup with the Montreal Canadiens before joining an Oilers team featuring a young Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier. "I think Subban is exactly what they need to go up against that. He is very quick on his feet as well."
Losing star center Ryan Johansen to a season-ending hip injury certainly hurt Nashville's high-powered top line. But the pair of Forsberg and Arvidsson still made several big plays against Anaheim. Forsberg was especially dangerous, scoring in five of the six games against the Ducks.
The depleted Penguins defense lost All-Star Kris Letang to injury before the playoffs even started. But Pittsburgh's blue line might be getting healthy at the perfect time. After being out for stretches, Justin Schultz and Trevor Daley have made plays since returning to the lineup. But one of Pittsburgh's key defensemen might also be its most unassuming.
He might only have seven points in 19 playoff games, but Olli Maatta has developed into an important defensive stopper. In the Penguins' Game 7 win against the Washington Capitals in the second round, Maatta did a great job paired with Schultz, alternating coverage of top lines centered by Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov. In Game 7 against Ottawa, Maatta paired with Daley to provide an effective duo. If these playoffs have proven anything, it's that Pittsburgh's defense will have to work as a committee to be successful, especially against Nashville's top line.
Predators' depth vs. Penguins' depth
As with any playoff series, depth scoring could decide who wins the Cup. It's in this area that Nashville might have an advantage. Pittsburgh has gotten clutch scoring when needed, especially Chris Kunitz's series-clinching goal Thursday night. But lacking superstars up front to rival Crosby and Malkin, Nashville has seen heroics from unlikely sources, including Colton Sissons' series-clinching hat trick against Anaheim.
Each team has seven players with three or more postseason goals, which plays to Nashville's advantage since Pittsburgh has played three more games. In addition, 10 different Predators have scored winning goals this postseason, compared to eight for the Penguins. But it's Nashville's talented defense that truly tips the scoring balance here.
Predators defensemen have scored 11 goals in 16 games in these playoffs, compared to eight goals in 19 games for Penguins defensemen. Nashville's scoring from the back end has been keyed by Josi and Ellis, who rank first and second, respectively, in goals by defensemen in these playoffs.
Perhaps no matchup could prove more intriguing than 34-year-old Rinne versus 23-year-old Murray. Rinne has been a league fixture for years, who made his NHL debut when Murray was 11 years old. The towering Finn has played every game this postseason for Nashville compared to Murray's five appearances, including four starts. But Murray boasts the hardware after winning it all last year. Rinne, on the other hand, has 64 games of postseason experience but has never made it this far before.
"In goal, I think it's a wash," said the NHL scout. "Murray, for a kid that is still technically a rookie, he handles the pressure as good as any young goalie I've ever seen. Rinne has found the top of his game at the right time and been a tower of strength for Nashville."
Rinne's numbers have been outstanding, and his .941 save percentage and 1.70 goals-against average propelled the Predators into the finals. Murray has played in far fewer games, but he sports an astonishing .946 save percentage and 1.35 goals-against average. Of course, Murray has yet to face more than 30 shots this postseason, whereas Rinne helped Nashville advance with a 38-save performance in Game 6 against the Ducks.