COMMENTARY: The perfect Stanley Cup final for 2017
As the defending champions, Pittsburgh Penguins prepare to meet the Stanley Cup final newbies from Nashville, play a little game with yourself.
Name as many players as you can off the top of your head from both teams. No cheating. No Google.
It can’t be that hard.
“Let’s see. Pittsburgh has Crosby and Malkin, Fleury and Murray. Kessel, Kunitz — um — that big defenceman. All those guys whose last name starts with an R.”
It’s not as easy as it seems.
Now, try Nashville.
“Well, there’s P.K. Subban. And. Um. Can I tap out?”
If you have been following closely, hopefully, you can beat that by four or five guys, but even the most knowledgeable of experts might struggle to name every participating player without a single perusal of their notes.
Marketers of the series might be praying that Sidney Crosby and P.K. Subban stay very healthy and play as many minutes as possible.
Still, this really is the perfect matchup for the National Hockey League in 2017.
Pittsburgh and Nashville are not exactly New York and Los Angeles when it comes to big markets.
They are the equivalent of Regina and Kamloops in Canada. Great cities that might make for a fantastic Western Hockey League final next year, but they are a long dump-in away from major centres whose every move grabs the attention of the entire country.
But Preds and Pens is a perfect showcase of hockey today.
These two teams, the only that who will survive the post-season for over 50 days, own ideal rosters for the way the NHL game is being played right now.
Move the puck
The first place you want to begin is on defence, but not because it wins championships. In the case of Pittsburgh and Nashville, because it moves the puck. Their six-man units are filled with puck movers and guys who have offensive ability. Look at the Predators: Ryan Ellis – puck mover. Roman Josi – puck mover. Matt Irwin and Yannick Weber? Puck movers. Then there’s Subban. He is a puck-mover and then some. Even the big guy among the group, Mattias Ekholm, who is 6’4″ and 215 pounds and looks like a classic defensive defenceman, is known for his shot and his ability to see offence.
Pittsburgh is very similar. Trevor Daley, Justin Schultz, Olli Maatta, and Ron Hainsey can all get the puck where it needs to go. Had Kris Letang not been lost for the season, it would be even better. About the only true shutdown defender on the two teams is Ian Cole of the Penguins. Schultz could be up for the Bobby Baun performance of this year’s post-season. According to John Shannon of Sportsnet, he played Game 7 with broken ribs and recorded a goal and an assist.
The common thread among them is that they are still the guys whose job it is to prevent you from getting chances to score. They all block shots. They play sound positional defence most of the time.
They just bring the added threat at the other end, too.
And Pittsburgh and Nashville have tossed away the belief that a defender under six feet tall is an automatic liability. Both consistently have two sub-six-footers in the lineup. Pittsburgh has Trevor Daley, Chad Ruhwedel and Mark Streit, who has filled in due to injury. Nashville has Ryan Ellis and Yannick Weber.
Not long ago, it would have been strange to see one of those players in the NHL, let alone in the championship series.
The Gargantuan Goalie
While the defencemen are shrinking, the goalies are not. The two men who will start Game 1 tower over just about everyone at the grocery checkout. The Predators’ Pekka Rinne is 6’5″. Matt Murray is a tall and slender, 6’4″.
NHL teams have gravitated towards the grandiose when it comes to goalie size. Most don’t even like looking at guys who aren’t at least 6’2″. With how good shooters are these days, the extra inches and girth just increase your odds of having a puck hit you. (Although Murray is just 178 pounds.)
Marc-Andre Fleury did a great deal of the heavy lifting to get the Pens to the finals, but even he is the magic 6’2″ mark and still has superior athleticism.
The goalie who acts as the exception to the rule actually backs up Rinne. Throughout the playoffs, he has had a comfortable spot at the end of the Nashville bench. Juuse Saros is 5’11″ and 180 pounds. He hasn’t logged a single second of playoff action because Rinne has been excellent, but he posted a .923 save percentage in 21 regular season appearances. He’s one to watch for the sake of any goaltender who fits the new vertically challenged mould of the NHL, however, you won’t see him unless a stroke of bad luck strikes Nashville.
The undersized centre or winger who could put up big numbers in the American Hockey League used to be kind of a tween. He was like a teenager’s kid brother. He liked to tag along, but he was never the reason you went anywhere. He was a good scorer, but not good enough at the highest level and his size kept him from being a serviceable role player.
But, this is not Jason Arnott’s NHL anymore.
Pontus Aberg, Viktor Arvidsson, Vernon Fiddler and Calle Jarnkrok make up a third of the Predators’ forward unit and they are not big guys. All come in at 5’11″ or less and Arvidsson has been the only consistent point producer among them in the post-season.
The Penguins have even more. Jake Guentzel, Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, Scott Wilson, Chris Kunitz and Patrick Hornqvist. None of them touches six-feet tall. Neither does Sidney Crosby, although he doesn’t belong in that category. Crosby is in his own category.
The speed of the game has opened the door for them. Be quick and be willing to do what it takes to win, and Pittsburgh and Nashville will take everything you can give to them, no matter what your height and weight might be.
Great players make the players around them better.
Legendary players make the players around them believe they can do anything.
Crosby is a legendary player.
Subban can’t be called one just yet, but if he’s holding the Stanley Cup over his head in a week or two, he will have climbed another rung towards that kind of status.
Both are polarizing in very different ways, but it is hard to pick anyone else on either team who has meant more in getting them to where they are.
What more does Predators’ head coach Peter Laviolette have to do to be considered an elite coach in hockey? The answer should be, “Nothing.” Laviolette is just the fourth coach in NHL history to command three different teams to the Stanley Cup final. So far, he has won with Carolina, lost with the Flyers and is playing his own rubber match with Nashville.
Mike Sullivan had a pretty short leash in his first head-coaching role with the Boston Bruins. He led them to a 41-19-15-7 record in 2003-04, but after a first-round exit and just 29 victories the next season, Sullivan was let go.
More than a decade later, he was a breath of fresh air for the Penguins on their way to last year’s Stanley Cup championship and has kept Pittsburgh duct-taped and stapled together through a rash of injuries that would have knocked other teams out a long time ago.
There is something to be said for experience. The Penguins know what a Stanley Cup final feels like. The Predators can ask Mike Fisher, who lost when he was with Ottawa in 2007 — only that was awhile ago.
Some teams are quick learners.
Others spend the first two games looking at the bright lights and the scenery and never recover.
Pittsburgh has survived adversity with a “next-man-up” attitude that could have Bill Belichick lining up for Penguins’ season tickets.
There is every reason for them to head into the Stanley Cup final as the favourite.
Don’t expect it to be a short series.
Hopefully, it goes as long as it can, because it really is the perfect depiction of what the game of hockey has become.
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