The Stanley Cup Final between the Nashville Predators and Pittsburgh Penguins starts Monday (7 p.m., Ch. 5). Here are eight reasons why this is an intriguing matchup:
1. Big dogs vs. underdogs: The Penguins are trying to become the first team in 19 years to repeat as Stanley Cup champions. In the last 10 years, the Penguins have been to the conference final five times and reached the Stanley Cup Final four times. They are trying to win their third Stanley Cup in that span. A decade ago, the Predators were holding rallies to save the team. This is the first time they’ve ever been to the Stanley Cup Final. They had never been to the conference final before this season.
2. Steel City vs. Music City: Pittsburgh’s reputation as one of America’s great sports towns is fully established. You can’t go 25 feet in Pittsburgh without seeing some display of affection for their Penguins. On playoff game days, people proudly wear the colors. But the exponential growth of Nashville’s celebration of the Predators has become an equally important NHL story. The national television audience may be surprised by what a hockey town Nashville has become.
3. The Sidney Crosby Show: Any time a sport’s No. 1 player reaches the championship series, it’s a winning formula. Ask the NBA. Crosby’s presence adds a subplot because the Predators don’t have a No. 1 center to match against Crosby. Their No. 1 center, Ryan Johansen, is injured. How effective Crosby will be in this series is an important factor in determining who wins.
4. Gang of Four: Based on their performance in this postseason, Nashville’s top defensemen Roman Josi, P.K. Subban, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm have to be considered the NHL’s best top four. Those four have combined for 38 points in the playoffs. Their collective plus-minus is +27. In addition to generating offense, they minimize prime scoring chances. They all can all defend.
5. Made in America: This Stanley Cup Final marks the first time in NHL history that both coaches are Americans. Pittsburgh’s Mike Sullivan and Nashville’s Peter Laviolette were both born in Massachusetts. The NHL currently has only six American-born coaches. Sullivan’s birthplace of Marshfield is 51 miles from Laviolette’s hometown of Franklin. It means that an American coach will win the Stanley Cup for the seventh time. Laviolette (2006, Carolina) and Sullivan (2016, Pittsburgh) have previously won it, along with Bill Stewart (1938, Chicago), ”Badger” Bob Johnson (1991, Pittsburgh), John Tortorella (2004) and Dan Blysma (2009).
6. Goalie wars: Nashville’s Pekka Rinne is receiving considerable attention because of his gaudy numbers (1.70 goals-against average and .941 save percentage). He has given up one or no goals in eight of Nashville’s 16 games. But Pittsburgh goalie Matt Murray’s save percentage is .945 since he regained the starter’s job four games ago. He has yet to give up more than two goals in a game. Murray has won 18 of his 25 starts in the playoffs. That’s a .720 winning percentage. The Penguins don’t believe they are at a disadvantage in net.
7. Carrie’s team: The NHL’s championship series is drawing attention beyond its usual sphere of influence because of the Predators’ relationship with the country music industry. It’s not only because Predators captain Mike Fisher is married to Carrie Underwood. Many country stars, such as Vince Gill, Keith Urban and others, are seen regularly at games. The acts the Predators bring to their stage in the stands between periods are impressive to say the least. Speculation about who will sing the national anthem before each game in Nashville has become one of the postseason’s biggest stories. The Predators don’t announce it until the performer walks on the ice. Underwood, Urban, Kelly Clarkson and Trisha Yearwood are among those of have already sung the anthem.
8. Forsberg 2.0: The name of Peter Forsberg, who played briefly for the Predators, is the most famous Forsberg in NHL history. But Filip Forsberg, no relation, is seeing his name recognition grow in this postseason. He’s Nashville’s most dangerous scorer. He leads the team in scoring with 15 points in 16 games. He also boasts a +17 plus-minus. He will need a productive series for the Predators to take down the Penguins.