The puck drops this week on the NHL Stanley Cup Finals as the Nashville Predators and Pittsburgh Penguins battle for the right to be called Stanley Cup champions.
For Pittsburgh, they are attempting to make it back-to-back seasons as champions and be the first team to accomplish that feat since the Detroit Red Wings repeated as champions in 1997 and 1998. For Nashville, they are looking to emerge as Stanley Cup champs for the first time in franchise history.
The key to betting and handicapping the NHL Stanley Cup Finals is determining what you value as the most critical and important component to a hockey team’s success in any playoff series. If you believe the biggest factor to winning is having depth at forward and strength down the middle, Pittsburgh would be the team to give the edge to in this series.
If you are of the opinion teams are built for success from the goaltender out with particular emphasis on a strong and deep blue line and a good goaltender, Nashville might be the team with the perceived advantage in this series. Pittsburgh has the top three scorers in the playoffs entering the Finals with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel leading the NHL.
Nashville has a blue line led by four strong defensemen who have played exceptionally well at both ends of the ice that not only have shut down some of the better players among their playoff foes but also produce offensively at a significant rate. P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis have combined for a staggering 39 points in Nashville’s 16 playoff games to this point.
Each team should hold an edge in different areas of this matchup. The Penguins should dominate the center ice position in this series as Crosby, Malkin, Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen provide the team with center ice depth that Nashville simply can’t match, especially with the season-ending injury to top line center Ryan Johansen. Pittsburgh often gets contributions offensively from all four of their lines while Nashville will probably have to rely more on their top two lines to generate goals.
There is a definitive edge to Pittsburgh at the forward position. On defense, the pendulum swings to Nashville, which boasts that dynamic quartet of defensemen as well as a steady third pair with Matt Irwin and Yannick Weber. Pittsburgh has a solid blue line but it’s a defensive corps that has been guilty of turnovers and running around in their own zone at times.
The Penguins blue line also will find it difficult if not impossible to match Nashville’s in terms of scoring contributions from the back end, so overall the Predators have the edge in terms of defense. Goaltending is a tough one to call. Matt Murray has played in limited action in the playoffs for Pittsburgh, returning in Game 3 of the East Finals against Ottawa in relief of Marc-Andre Fleury, and he’s played ever since leading the Penguins to wins in three of the last four games of that series.
Murray yielded just six goals in four starts since regaining the net but it is a small sample size for him. Nevertheless, he has the Stanley Cup playoff winning experience on his side from last year, which Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne doesn’t. However, Rinne has been marvelous in the playoffs, posting a 12-4 record with a 1.70 GAA and .941 save percentage. He’s battled injuries and consistency over the years but has found his top form at the right time. Even though this will be the first Stanley Cup Finals for him and his teammates, he has played as good as if not better than any other goaltender here in the playoffs.
At the current time, Pittsburgh is a moderate favorite to win this series priced at -160 while Nashville is taking back around +140 as an underdog. I see some betting value in the underdog Predators. Pittsburgh will be formidable looking to repeat as champions, but it is a very hard task to accomplish and I like getting a team with the better blue line and a goalie playing as well as Rinne is in these playoffs at a plus price.
Note that Nashville is a perfect 3-0 in Game 1’s in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, defeating Chicago, St. Louis and Anaheim all on the road, and if the Predators are able to maintain that pattern with a Game 1 road win in Pittsburgh, they would steal home ice advantage away from the Penguins. That could be even more significant in this series because Nashville has a dominant 7-1 home record at Bridgestone Arena in this year’s playoffs and has won 11 of 12 home playoff games dating back to last season.
Nashville looks like a team of destiny and it wouldn’t surprise me to see their season end with a hoisting of the Stanley Cup.