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The Title Holders vs. the Trendiest Team

Terrible Towels vs. Smashville. Elite offense versus elite defense. Sid vs. P.K. The NHL and NBC can relax: We’re in store for the most enticing Stanley Cup matchup possible.

(Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration)

Of course it was a Chris Kunitz knucklepuck in double overtime of Thursday night’s Game 7, with an assist from Sidney Crosby, that propelled the Pittsburgh Penguins to their second Stanley Cup final appearance in as many years. Sometimes you just have to go with what works, even if it hasn’t seemed fully functional in a while. Kunitz last scored a goal 35 games ago, back in mid-February. He’s 37 years old! He’s no longer the reliable Crosby remora he once was.

But Thursday night, Kunitz busted the slump, opening the scoring midway through the second period. Then, in double overtime, after the Penguins had failed to convert on so many quality chances that the game felt destined to revert to the cosmic mean and award the Ottawa Senators a plucky, inconceivable goal just because, there was Crosby setting up Kunitz for another. Never in doubt.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan leapt joyously in the air. “That might be the most emotion I’ve seen Mike Sullivan show behind the bench,” observed a Pittsburgh radio host afterward. “In terms of a celebration, that is.” The coach’s reaction is best watched on a loop: Find you someone who looks at you the way he looks at that assistant coach as he goes in for the hug.

It’s easy to imagine NHL and NBC executives reacting to Kunitz’s goal in pretty much the same way. That’s not to diminish the Senators, whose quite unexpected romp through this postseason featured both a spellbinding showcase of the natural wonder that is Erik Karlsson and a poignant, powerful performance by goalie Craig Anderson. And it’s not to take anything away from the Anaheim Ducks, who won perhaps the most memorable game of this postseason when they came back from down 3–0 with just over three minutes to play in Game 5 in the second round against the Edmonton Oilers and capped it off with a win in overtime.

But of the four possible matchups that were on the table going into the conference finals round, the Nashville Predators versus the Pittsburgh Penguins was always the most enticing one. (It’s also the most yellow.) The Predators are a trendy, friendly team featuring one of the sunniest fan bases in the league and players like P.K. Subban who seem to live life by the ol’ Pierre McGuire mantra of “go have some fun out there.” The Penguins are reigning Cup champs who employ two of the sport’s best centers, Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, as well as the league’s most passionate individual in Phil Kessel.

The Predators and Penguins are not traditional hockey rivals, but there are several story lines that bring the two teams together. The Predators traded Patric Hornqvist to the Penguins in 2014 for James Neal. Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford won a Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006, when they were coached by Peter Laviolette, who now stands behind the bench in Nashville. Matt Cullen, who has played for the Predators and is now on the Penguins, was on that Hurricanes team too.

Predators-Penguins is a series that highlights the importance of good strategy but also good luck; of depth, but not at the expense of star power; and of a willingness and ability to adapt. Both teams have taken unusual paths to arrive at the final: The Penguins went from playing two of the top four teams in the league in the first two rounds, to playing the 12th- and 16th-best teams in the conference and Cup finals. Nashville’s first-round sweep of the Chicago Blackhawks, the no. 1 seed in the Western Conference, was reminiscent of the way the eighth-seeded L.A. Kings charged through the playoffs to win the Stanley Cup in 2012. Both teams enter the final having lost one of their most important players (Nashville center Ryan Johansen and Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang) to injury.

Just a year and a half ago, a reeling Penguins team fired its coach; a few weeks after that, the Predators, looking for a shakeup, traded away the player (defenseman Seth Jones) that was supposed to be the team’s future. Since then, Pittsburgh has won a Stanley Cup and is set to play Nashville for another. Life and hockey can move fast.

Here are a few of the questions we have going into this series, which will begin Monday night in Pittsburgh:

Who is the immovable object, and who is the unstoppable force?

The two teams should match up quite nicely, particularly on one end of the ice. Pittsburgh’s offense is potent, featuring three players (Crosby, Malkin, and Kessel) who finished in the top 20 in NHL scoring this season, and complemented by a host of youngsters. But the Penguins skaters will run up against Nashville’s strong defense, a unit so capable that no one can ever seem to agree which one the “first D pair” even is. Three Predators defensemen — Subban, his partner Mattias Ekholm, and Roman Josi — are averaging more than 25 minutes of ice time per game this postseason.

There’s a good chance that Subban and Ekholm will be dispatched to play against Crosby, while Josi and Ryan Ellis will have the perhaps even less enviable task of handling the Penguins’ “second” line, which features the dynamic, ferocious combination of Malkin and Kessel. Every year, as the number of teams remaining winnows down, the precision with which they target one another on a specific strategic, matchup-based level becomes one of the most fun things to watch; you can’t really get that in the regular season. Seeing two teams with elite talent adjusting to and pushing one another will hopefully be one of this series’ lasting delights.

Who is the Penguins’ top defenseman?

An amazing element to the Penguins’ Stanley Cup repeat run, which included a grueling seven-game victory over the East’s top team, the Washington Capitals, is that they’ve managed to keep winning despite the absence of their clear best defenseman, Letang. He has been sidelined since April due to a required neck surgery, and in his absence a group of blue-liners — including several still in their 20s, like Brian Dumoulin, 25, and Olli Maatta, 22 — have serviceably picked up the bulk of the slack. But no one player has emerged to play the “top guy” role that most recent past Cup winners have had, and against a fast team like the Predators, the structural integrity of the Penguins’ patchwork defense will be tested.

And who is the Penguins’ top goalie?

Last season the Penguins won the Cup with a guy in net, Matt Murray, who’d played in just 13 NHL regular-season games. This year the team had to decide throughout the season whether to start Murray or the veteran, not always entirely reliable Marc-Andre Fleury. While Murray got the nod for most of the regular season, an injury in the first round of the playoffs brought the guy known as Flower back in — until it didn’t.

Before Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Senators, with the Penguins trailing 2–1 in the series, Sullivan replaced Fleury with Murray, and it’s likely that he’ll remain in net for the foreseeable future. Against Ottawa, he pitched a shutout in Game 5 and stopped 27 shots in Game 7 (on his 23rd birthday). He could potentially win his second Stanley Cup in what is technically still his rookie season. Facing him from the far side of the rink will be Pekka Rinne, the 6-foot-5 Finn who has been a Nashville Predator longer than any of his teammates and who has amassed a save percentage of 94.1 (and three assists!) this postseason.

Will Taylor Swift bogart the Stanley Cup?

After noticing that the newest Stanley Cup commercial features Taytay’s song “Blank Space” — I think I liked the mumps version better — there is no doubt in my mind that she’s angling to become the Jim Belushi of Nashville. Only you can stop this now, Dolly Parton.

Can David Poile finally build his way to a championship?

In an industry that can be fickle and ephemeral, Predators general manager David Poile has had incredible staying power: He’s been with Nashville since the team’s inception in 1998. And in the almost two decades since, he’s built a reputation for developing an increasingly successful franchise in a “non-hockey city” in general and, more specifically, for building a ridiculous core of top defensemen. He’s also pulled off some great trades, like stealing Filip Forsberg from Washington for Martin Erat and Michael Latta; Forsberg has led Nashville in goal scoring in the playoffs and tied for the team lead in the regular season. (The Penguins aren’t the only team in the final to have broken the hearts of Caps fans.)

But what has distinguished Poile lately has been his ability to separate himself from the players he develops. It was only a few years ago that the heart of the team was Ryan Suter and Shea Weber; it was even more recently that the future of the team was Seth Jones. None of those guys are in Nashville anymore; in their place are names like Subban and (the currently injured) Johansen, whom Poile acquired in hopes that they would instill a more dynamic offense, and who somehow already feel like they’ve been Predators all along.

Who will be involved in the Controversy?

If the Stanley Cup doesn’t incite an ongoing saga that starts with a minor dispute and snowballs into press conferences where guys drag one another in dry, sarcastic tones, then the Cup final will be a failure. (Boston-Vancouver in 2011 remains the gold standard.) Since we’ve been through enough drama related to Crosby and Subban over the years, this year’s edition will hopefully involve them only tangentially. If I have my way, the Controversy will instead directly embroil the Tennessee Titans offensive line, Justin “Sulky” Schultz, James Neal, and Mario Lemieux.

Who will be the biggest no-name to go down in history?

Championship series are so difficult to predict, but one thing is nearly certain: At least one game will be won by a rando. Pittsburgh’s top goal scorer this postseason has been Jake Guentzel, a 22-year-old rookie who was once Kessel’s literal stick boy and has now lit the lamp nine times in 19 playoff games. For all the top players appearing in the Cup final, there are also guys — like Nashville’s Pontus Aberg, Frédérick Gaudreau, and Colton Sissons — that sound like made-up characters from a hockey parody. But Sissons is real, and while he’s not necessarily spectacular, he does have 10 points in the postseason. So does Viktor Arvidsson, who shared the team lead in regular-season goals with 31 and whose last name translates to “someone carved an R into the forehead of my son.”

“You’re really cerebral. Can you take us through what was being said in the dressing room between the third period and overtime, and the first overtime and the second overtime?”

Just all the same stuff.

Who is going to win, and in how many games?

My head says Penguins in six, my heart wishes it would be the Predators, and my hunch says that the real winner will be all the hot chicken and Primanti Bros. sandwiches we will daydream about eating along the way.