Almost 20 years have passed since a team last won back-to-back Stanley Cups. And while the Pittsburgh Penguins won't sweep the Nashville Predators as the Detroit Red Wings did in winning their second straight Cup in 1998, they should make history as the first repeat winner of the salary cap era.
1. CROSBY AND MALKIN
The toughest two-some in the league to defend at full strength, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin stand to cause even more problems for a team that's banged up. Nashville won't have their best centre, Ryan Johansen, at all and there's uncertainty around their second-best option down the middle, Mike Fisher.
Even if Fisher is healthy enough to play, the Preds are overmatched with Colton Sissons likely to face either Crosby or Malkin.
What head coach Peter Laviolette does have at his disposal, however, are two defensive pairs that can capably counter the Pens top two lines with P.K. Subban and Mattias Ekholm likely to match Crosby and Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis likely to combat Malkin and perhaps Phil Kessel, if the Penguins keep the two together.
Subban and Ekholm managed to thwart Ryan Getzlaf in the Western Conference final, but Crosby occupies his own airspace as the game's best player. He got better and better against the Ottawa Senators and was all but unstoppable in Games 4-7. Even if the Preds somehow manage to contain him (which seems unlikely in a seven-game series), Malkin and Kessel have the upper hand against Josi, Ellis and whatever line Laviolette chooses to counter with, Fisher potentially included.
Beyond that, Pittsburgh just needs their quality of depth to chip in and there were signs of that coming around against Ottawa with those like Conor Sheary, Chris Kunitz and Carter Rowney beginning to emerge.
The Preds will need similar contributions from the likes of James Neal, Colin Wilson, Pontus Aberg and even Game 6 hat trick hero, Austin Watson, given that Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson will likely have to line up either against Crosby and/or Malkin.
Beating the defending champs likely comes down to whether Nashville can stifle Pittsburgh as they did Chicago, St. Louis and Anaheim. Ottawa nearly got it done and the Preds have a far better group of defenders to work with.
Here's betting with Crosby and Malkin, the two leading scorers in the playoffs, two best players in the series and two of the finest post-season performers in NHL history.
2. MURRAY OVER RINNE
The Predators' shutdown effort is only a chance if Pekka Rinne continues to perform like the younger, Vezina trophy-worthy version of himself and the bet here is the 34-year-old finally stumbles against the league's highest-powered offence.
Rinne has been brilliant so far in the playoffs with a .941 save percentage, including a near-perfect first round against the Blackhawks in which he allowed only three goals.
It was around this point in his workload last year — he started 80 games between the regular season and playoffs — that Rinne (up to 77 games) really came undone. He yielded 12 goals in the last three games of a second-round series loss to San Jose. Will he have enough gas left in the tank in the final against a team that fired more shots than anyone during the regular season?
He'll be countered by Matt Murray, a 22-year-old who's already proven he can get the job done.
3. PENGUINS CAN SURVIVE ON D
They don't have their best defenceman, but the Penguins have enough here to make due against the Preds.
The unit's biggest challenge so far came against the Washington Capitals, who battered them over seven games in the second round. Nashville doesn't have the collective size, strength or skill of the Capitals though with their game more predicated on the speed from those like Forsberg and Arvidsson.
This group of Penguins defenders — all relatively mobile and able with the puck — should be able to handle that type of game though Subban, Ellis and Josi all present challenges from the back end. Pittsburgh's defence, which just got the ever-effective Justin Schultz back from injury, actually fared OK against Ottawa with every defenceman but Ron Hainsey up over 50 per cent possession.
The pick: Penguins in six.
Conference final picks: 2-0
Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press