This NHL season wrapped up on Sunday night when the Penguins clinched the Stanley Cup Final with a 2-0 victory in Game 6 against the Preds in Nashville.
With the win, Pittsburgh becomes the league's first repeat champs in nearly 20 years.
As for the Predators, their riveting Cinderella playoff run ultimately comes up just short of hockey's summit, but there are plenty of reasons to feel good about the future of hockey in Nashville.
Let's take a look at a handful of reasons why it's the Penguins, not the Predators, that finish as the last team standing.
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The Predators got two versions of Pekka Rinne in this series. The good version came at home, where Rinne allowed just one goal in each of his three starts. He went 2-1 and stopped 77 of 80 shots for a .963 save percentage. In those games in Nashville, he looked like the goalie that helped carry the Preds through the first three rounds.
Unfortunately, the bad version came on the road and was supremely awful. In three games in Pittsburgh, Rinne stopped just 34 of 45 shots for a save percentage of .756. It was a continuation of the struggles that the veteran netminder has had in Pittsburgh, where he has still yet to win in his career as a starter.
The Preds wouldn’t have made it to the Stanley Cup Final if it weren’t for Rinne, but the end result could have been different had he been more consistent in the final series. Nashville outplayed Pittsburgh in the first two games of the series but lost both games in large part because of Rinne’s inability to make saves on stoppable pucks.
The margin for error in the SCF is usually small, so Nashville not capitalizing early in the series really cost them. Rinne needed to be better.
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After scoring 31 goals during the regular season, the 22-year-old Forsberg was highly productive in the first three rounds of the playoffs. He recorded at least one point in 13 of the Predators' 16 postseason games.
But Nashville’s most lethal offensive weapon was kept incredibly quiet during the final six games of the playoffs. The top-line winger recorded just a single point in the series and it came on an empty-net goal to close out Game 4. He was essentially locked down for the entire series.
The Predators were always going to have trouble matching the firepower that Pittsburgh’s lineup brings, but that task became exponentially more difficult when Forsberg went cold at a very inopportune time.
Heading into the series, we knew that the Predators were at a disadvantage offensively against Pittsburgh, especially with Nashville’s top centerman Ryan Johansen sidelined for the rest of the season due to injury.
With that in mind, it’s still a bit surprising how much the Preds’ offensive unit struggled in the Final, especially against Pittsburgh's blue line. They had a brief two-game explosion in Nashville in Games 3 and 4, but it didn’t carry over. In fact, the Preds were shut out in the remaining two games of the series.
In the end, they averaged a little over two goals a game in the series, and that’s just not good enough.
I’ve already singled out Forsberg, but he’s not exclusively to blame. Only one player on the Preds roster had more than a single goal in the series (rookie Frederick Gaudreau, with three) and their lack of finish was painful.
Nashville’s power play also was largely a disappointment, especially in the latter half of the series. The man-advantage unit went 0-for-8 in the final three games, including 0-for-4 on Sunday. Pittsburgh’s power play certainly wasn’t much better (2-for-22 in the series) but Nashville’s inability to seize their opportunities in the final few games was a killer.
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No disrespect to guys like P.K. Subban and Filip Forsberg, but the Penguins held a big advantage in bonafide star power in this matchup. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel…those are guys that will cause sleepless nights during a seven-game series.
The Predators did a good job of suppressing those guys in short spurts -- mainly, during Games 3 and 4 -- during this series, but they’re too good to hold down for very long. All three of their heavy hitters came out with huge showings in a pivotal Game 5 and that was key in shifting the series back in Pittsburgh’s favor.
When you look back on the series, it’s clear that the Penguins’ top-six outmatched Nashville up front. Sidney Crosby had a series-leading seven points en route to another Conn Smythe, Malkin and Kessel had four apiece, then role players like Jake Guentzel (four goals), Chris Kunitz (six assists) and Connor Sheary (three points) were playing strong secondary roles.
The Penguins were able to do their most damage against the Predators’ second line of Viktor Arvidsson, Mike Fisher and James Neal. Arvidsson finished the series at a whopping minus-10, while Fisher and Neal were both minus-5.
Hockey is obviously a team game and a collective effort is required to win a Stanley Cup but it certainly helps when you have major stars and those major stars come up big like the Pens’ did.
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One bad call
I don’t think it’s fair to say that the Predators lost this series because of the terrible screw-up that cost them a goal in Game 6, but it’s fair to think that it could have made a big difference had the goal counted.
Instead of taking a lead as they fought to keep their season alive, the goal didn’t count and the Predators ultimately never found the back of the net again. The Penguins scored a late goal and then doubled down with an empty-netter to close out the series with a 2-0 win.
We’ll never know how the rest of the game (and, possibly, the series) would have turned out had officiating not made that inexcusable mistake, but it’s fair for the Predators and their fans to feel sick about how things played out.
Referees may not have lost the series for the Preds but they did create an extra hurdle, one which played a big part in the final game. You never want to see referees factor in like that.
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