The 2017 Stanley Cup Final will make history regardless of the outcome. The Pittsburgh Penguins could become the first team in 19 years to repeat as champions. The Nashville Predators, meanwhile, are looking to hoist their first Cup in the franchise’s 18-season existence.
Nashville, the playoffs’ 16th seed, has dispatched the Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues and Anaheim Ducks, going 12-4 in the process. Pittsburgh has defeated the Columbus Blue Jackets, Washington Capitals and Ottawa Senators, needing two overtimes in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final to get the job done (and a Game 7 against the Capitals, too).
Here’s how experts in the USA TODAY Network see the series playing out:
Kevin Allen: Penguins in six. Without Ryan Johansen, who do the Predators use against Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin? The Predators have an edge in net, but the Penguins just defeated a goalie (Craig Anderson) who was playing as impressively as Pekka Rinne. The Predators’ defensemen are a talented group, but they won’t play the Penguins tighter than the Ottawa Senators did.
Adam Vingan: Penguins in seven. The Predators have been incredibly resilient this postseason, winning 12 of 16 games without suffering consecutive losses or trailing in their previous three series. It comes down to the center battle. Nashville might not be able to handle Pittsburgh’s depth there without Ryan Johansen and potentially Mike Fisher. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin could be too much to handle up front.
Joe Rexrode: Predators in six. This looks like a mismatch up the middle with Nashville No. 1 center Ryan Johansen out. But from the start of this run, when the Predators allowed three goals in a sweep of the Chicago Blackhawks, they have defied appearances. Nashville still has Pekka Rinne, Filip Forsberg and an elite defensive quartet. And it has Peter Laviolette. He came up with an all-new top line after Johansen went down, and all replacement center Colton Sissons did was score a hat trick and the series-winning goal in Game 6 against Anaheim. At some point when stuff like that happens, you stop doubting.
Jimmy Hascup: Predators in six. Predators general manager David Poile has built from the back out and coach Peter Laviolette has preached defensive responsibility, and there will be no better validation of that philosophy than this series. The Preds’ vaunted top-four defense will mitigate the affect of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin against a team lacking front-line centers. And the Penguins might not have a way of slowing down Filip Forsberg. Don’t discount the Predators’ ability to win in different ways, either.
Mike Brehm: Penguins in six. The Predators’ defense is stronger, but its hands will be full with the Penguins’ offensive stars. Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel are averaging a point a game or better, and the Predators can’t match that, especially since Ryan Johansen is out and Matt Murray is back in the Penguins’ net. Also the Penguins know what it takes to win a Cup. Their poise will help them end the NHL’s drought of back-to-back champions.
Jace Evans: Penguins in six. The season-ending injury to Ryan Johansen means that the Predators’ top three centers in terms of production are Mike Fisher, Calle Jarnkrok and Colton Sissons. The Penguins’ top three centers are Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Nick Bonino. Hockey is usually won up the middle, and Crosby and Malkin are two of the best centers to ever play the game. Going up against a stout Nashville top-four defense, the duo will be the difference in making Pittsburgh the first repeat champion since 1998.
Adam Vingan and Joe Rexrode write for The Tennessean, part of the USA TODAY Network