Sports Hockey

NHL FINAL

Breaking it down: Pens’ edge at centre could be difference

By Mike Zeisberger, Toronto Sun

Injured Ryan Johansen celebrates with teammate Pekka Rinne of the Nashville Predators at Bridgestone Arena on May 22, 2017 in Nashville. (Sanford Myers/Getty Images)

Injured Ryan Johansen celebrates with teammate Pekka Rinne of the Nashville Predators at Bridgestone Arena on May 22, 2017 in Nashville. (Sanford Myers/Getty Images)

In the end, a set of crutches — not hockey sticks — might provide the most telling symbol of whether the Nashville Predators win the Stanley Cup.

Clutching one with each of his hands last Monday, a gimpy Ryan Johansen was able to hobble out on to the rink surface at Bridgestone Arena to help celebrate with his teammates their elimination of the Anaheim Ducks, bringing with it the first visit to the final in franchise history.

Unfortunately for Johansen and the Preds, that’s about the only activity the gifted forward will be able to do on the ice for a long time.

While his Preds will be battling the Pittsburgh Penguins for the right to hoist hockey’s Holy Grail in a series that begins Monday evening at PPG Arena, the team’s top centre can only sit and watch, mired in a minimum two-month rehab program after undergoing thigh surgery for an injury suffered in Game 4 of the Western Conference final against the Ducks.

Not only was Johansen and his 13 playoff points the team’s No. 1 centre, he was the catalyst who ignited linemates Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson to be even more dynamic than they already were. Now, with the former Columbus Blue Jacket unavailable for the upcoming showdown with Pittsburgh, the Penguins have an even more decisive matchup advantage when it comes to strength up the middle.

And, when the final goal has been scored and all is said and done, it might very well be the key edge that leads the Penguins to a second consecutive Stanley Cup.

Admittedly, the Preds did a great job winning the final two games against the Ducks despite missing both Johansen and fellow centre Mike Fisher, who was also injured in Game 4 and unavailable for the remainder of the series. That Peter Laviolette’s plucky squad was able to accomplish the feat against an Anaheim team that sports a lethal one-two punch at centre in Ryan Getzlaf Ryan Kesler makes Nashville’s advancement even more impressive.

At the same time, an argument can be made that the Penguins Fearsome Foursome of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen combine to form the best cache of centre icemen of any team in the game today — certainly when it comes to the postseason anyway.

Fisher has practised the past few days, an optimistic sign for the Predators and their loyal legions of fans. Yet, even his potential return doesn’t bring with it the promise of an offensive explosion, judging by his lack of production on the scoresheet this spring.

In the 16 games he has suited up for in these 2017 playoffs, Mike Fisher has as many points as you and I — zero. Fisher, for the record, has averaged 16:58 of ice time per post-season outing.

Of course, if Fisher has been a disappointment when it comes to points, then Colton Sissons must be considered a surprise. Registering a huge hat trick in the clinching victory against the Ducks, the North Vancouver native has as many points in these playoffs (10) as he accrued during the regular season, earning him comparisons to unlikely postseason heroes of the past like John Druce and Chris Kontos.

Still, when all is said and done, this clash of centres would appear to be, on the surface, a story of David vs. Goliath on blades, especially from a statistical point of view.

The proof: Pittsburgh’s Malkin (24), Crosby (20), Cullen (7) and Bonino (5) have combined for 56 points this spring. Nashville’s Fisher (0), Sissons (10), Calle Jarnkrok (3) and Vernon Fiddler (2) have accrued 15.

And while you ponder that 56-15 point differential in Pittsburgh’s favour, consider this, too: Malkin, Crosby, Cullen and Bonino are just 50 weeks removed from sipping that oh-so-sweet succulent champagne out of the Stanley Cup. None of the aforementioned Predators centres have ever done that.

None of this guarantees the Penguins will win. The Cinderella story that was Sissons in Game 6 against Anaheim showed that anything is possible on the stage that is the NHL playoff theatre.

But unless there is complete collapse by Crosby and Malkin, the Penguins certainly get a huge nod up the middle. And that’s a significant hole for the Preds to overcome.

Breaking down the matchups of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Nashville Predators heading into the 2017 Stanley Cup final, which begins Monday night.

FORWARDS

Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson are two of the top budding stars in the game, but there is no comparison here when it comes to the elite difference makers up front that Penguins coach Mike Sullivan can throw out on the ice at any time. The Penguins feature four of the top six point producers in the playoffs including Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel and Jake Guentzel. Add to that the fact that the healing Patric Hornqvist could return to the lineup against his former team for Game 1, and the rich are seemingly getting richer.

Edge: Penguins

DEFENCE

Three of Nashville’s top six playoff scorers - Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and P.K. Subban - are blueliners. And when you consider one of the other players in that top half-dozen - Ryan Johansen - is gone for the series with a thigh injury, you can see just how much the Preds rely on their back end for offence. The Pens deserve credit for overcoming the absence of stud defenceman Kris Letang, but we might still give the Preds the nod here even if Letang was playing.

Edge: Predators

GOAL

Pekka Rinne is a favourite to win the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP, going 12-4 with a 1.70 goals-against average and .941 save percentage. Normally that would be enough to earn the edge here. But in Matt Murray, you have a kid that won the Cup a year ago and has stepped in to relieve Marc-Andre Fleury this time around to the tune of 3-1, 1.35 and .946.

Edge: Even

COACHING

This is a cool matchup, the first time two American coaches have faced each other in a Stanley Cup final. The Preds’ Peter Laviolette led the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes to the Cup; the Pens’ Mike Sullivan did the same with last year’s Pens.

Edge: Even

SPECIAL TEAMS

Penguins - PP, 2nd (25%); PK, 8th, 85.5%)

Predators - PP, 12th (14.9%); PK, 4th, 88.1%)

While the two teams aren’t that far apart in terms of post-season penalty-killing numbers, the Penguins have a significant advantage in power play stats. With the likes of Crosby, Malkin and Kessel on the pp, why wouldn’t they?

Edge: Penguins

INTANGIBLES

The Penguins know what it takes to win a Cup, having done it last year. They have two of the most talented stars in the game in Crosby and Malkin. Does it guarantee them anything? No. Does it give them an edge? Yes.

Edge: Penguins

PREDICTION

Penguins in six, although don’t shortchange the Preds. No one would be surprised if this goes the distance, setting up a dramatic Game 7.