The NHL has finally arrived at the end of its bittersweet trek for the Stanley Cup. It sucks that Detroit never even had a chance to compete for the prize, but there is something to be said for the joy of watching hockey for the sake of it as well. This year, we get a match-up that lots of folks predicted in September and nobody predicted a month ago. Despite any predictions, for NHL fans and especially Detroit fans, this one may feel like the most important Stanley Cup Final in a long while.
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Nashville Predators
The Match-Up: The Nashville Predators won the Western Conference over the Anaheim Ducks on the back of superb goal tending in 16 games. The Pittsburgh Penguins broke the hearts of the upstart Ottawa Senators with depth and power to win the East in 19 games. There is exactly one wrinkle to this whole match-up that gives me any pause whatsoever.
Ryan Johansen is out for the remainder of the post-season. He had emergency hip surgery following the WCF and won’t be able to skate again for several months. He has been the top line linchpin for the Predators and words don’t do justice to how sorely he’ll be missed. But the Nashville Predators have two very important advantages going into the Stanley Cup Final: fewer games played, and a hot goalie. Those are two massive advantages for teams in the Stanley Cup Final.
Sure, the Penguins are a better team on most any night in the regular season. They’re a phenomenally decked out squad with waves of skilled forwards, flexibility in net, and surprising defensive chops. They have experience and swagger and tradition and all the intangibles that teams salivate for. But the Predators are more rested, and have that most essential X-Factor: a hot goalie.
Consider the 2011 Final. The Vancouver Canucks were a phenomenal squad that season, the best team in the league. And they outclassed the Boston Bruins. They could beat the Bruins, but they couldn’t beat Tim Thomas. The theoretical match-up doesn’t matter at this point in the post season. All that matters is which team is the best on four particular nights in late May and early June, and a hot goalie like Pekka Rinne is going to give the Penguins fits as they try to be better than him.
Wings Fans Should Care: Okay, rant time. For a league that really markets parity, there have been four league champions over the past eight years; Chicago has three wins, LA and Pittsburgh have two apiece, and Boston holds one. Of that bunch, Boston is the only one to lose a cup, two years after they had won it. So that is seven unique teams that have lost Stanley Cups to a small cabal of champions. No team that has lost a Stanley Cup Final has gone on to win it in ensuing years. Recent trends suggest that Nashville needs to win now, because if they don’t then this opportunity is not coming back.
This goes beyond the fear of Pittsburgh wiping away Detroit’s record as the last back-to-back champion in a year where the Red Wings organization has already lost so much; this Stanley Cup Final is yet another chance to maintain or rewrite the NHL’s stars. If Pittsburgh wins, the league the Red Wings play in will continue to be locked in a quasi-dynastic-but-not-really holding pattern that lacks any real surprise because the same damn teams keep winning over and over. However, if Nashville wins then there is the possibility that the league changes its direction; a small market team can win, can break the mold.
On a psychological level, I suppose the reason I believe this Stanley Cup Final is the most important since Detroit lost to Pittsburgh in 2009 is that the Wings are now forced to change, and I want to see the league begin to change, too. I’m ready to move on from lying to myself a little harder every year that the Wings have what it takes as the league pushes the Parity marketing ploy alongside images of Patrick Kane, Milan Lucic, Sidney Crosby, and Jonathan Quick. I’m ready for the Wings to become something different, and I’m ready for the League to become something a little different, too, even if that only means the Predators take the Cup back to Nashville against a favored team that has been spoon-fed as the NHL’s Good Guys to the fans. Sure, the Penguins might be the better team, and most of the time I believe the better team should win because they’re, well, better. But maybe, this time around, we can see something a little different. We can see an underdog win, see some change.
Prediction: The prediction is already laid out pretty clearly in the words written above, and honestly, as much as I try to be impartial regarding a prediction, I just can’t. I just can’t not hope for an underdog to win. I can’t not hope, in a year when the Red Wings said goodbye to a 25 year playoff streak, Gordie Howe, Mike Illitch, and Joe Louis Arena, that Detroit hangs onto one last claim to greatness: the last back-to-back Stanley Cup Champions. Predators in 7.