PITTSBURGH — With the minutes counting down before the puck is dropped Monday night at PPG Paints Arena to kick off the 2017 Stanley Cup Final, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Nashville Predators continued to size up one another. Just four wins short of hoisting the most cherished trophy in hockey, each team continued to gauge where they matched up best in the final series of the 2016-17 NHL season.
On paper at least, there was one area the defending champion Penguins appeared to have an indisputable advantage: playoff experience.
“Anytime you won it before there are some good memories you can think back on,” said Pittsburgh winger Carl Hagelin, who is appearing in his third Final in the past four seasons. “At the same time, you can’t think just because they haven’t won it before that they’re not going to be ready.”
Not only is this year’s Pittsburgh roster almost identical to the group that won the franchise’s fourth championship last year, but the Predators conversely as a franchise are still playoff neophytes for the most part entering the best-of-seven series. Appearing in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in franchise history, Nashville does have captain Mike Fisher, who has played in 128 postseason games. But Fisher has been hampered by injuries and has no points in 14 games in these playoffs.
How great is the discrepancy in big-game experience between these clubs? Pittsburgh’s superstar duo of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have played in 142 and 143 playoff games, respectively. That’s more than the Predators franchise, which in its young history has 86 postseason contests. The star combination of Crosby, Malkin and Phil Kessel enter the Final with a combined 141 playoff goals. Those three players are within striking distance of the Predators franchise, which in its history has 214 postseason goals.
Every indication is that this grand difference in playoff reps could swing the series in Pittsburgh’s favor. But the defending champions are having none of it.
“It’s a new series. They’re hungry and they want to win,” said Penguins defenseman Trevor Daley. “I don’t think there is too much of an advantage for each team.”
Whether it was sheer honesty or simple gamesmanship, the Penguins refused to point to their overwhelming playoff experience as a determining factor in this series. But despite the Penguins’ general unwillingness to tout their big-game chops, there was at least one veteran who did point to it as a definite advantage against Nashville.
“I believe that experience can survive you well in the playoffs and in big moments. For our team it has,” said Penguins forward Matt Cullen. “There’s a lot of emotions in the playoffs, there’s a lot of ups and downs. It gets even more amplified in the Final. I think having experience in your group can serve you well.”
The oldest player in the series at age 40, Cullen speaks from, well, experience. The veteran center is on the verge of hoisting the Stanley Cup for the third time in an NHL career that started almost two decades ago.
Despite his 117 postseason games with seven different teams, Cullen still acknowledged that experience alone wouldn’t hand Pittsburgh its second straight title.
“It’s a pretty unbelievable feeling to be here, but we’re smart enough to know that there’s quite a lot of work to be done,” said Cullen. “I’ve been impressed with the hunger level and determination level of this group.”
As defending champions, the Penguins have survived grueling seven-game series against the Ottawa Senators and Washington Capitals and have learned firsthand how heavy the head that wears the crown can truly be. When it comes to dismissing this seemingly chasm-like difference between these two teams, Nashville and Pittsburgh appear to have found some common ground.
“I wouldn’t say they have any advantage. Every year is a new year. Obviously they won the Cup last year, but at the same time you never know when you’ll get this chance again,” said Predators forward Filip Forsberg. “They obviously have been fortunate enough to win a couple, but this could be the last chance. This could be the only chance you get. Over here we’re going to make the most of it.”
The lowest seed in the playoffs following a 94-point regular season, the Predators have shown their mettle this postseason despite starting every series on the road. They swept the top-seeded Chicago Blackhawks in the first round before handling the Anaheim Ducks, who finished atop the Pacific Division with 105 points, in six games to advance to the Cup Final. When star center Ryan Johansen was sidelined for the remainder of the playoffs with a hip injury, an injury magnified by Fisher’s own nagging ailment, the Predators won two straight against Anaheim to move on.
While everyone was watching the Penguins over the past few seasons, the Predators inconspicuously developed into a clutch postseason performer.
“I’ve been here three years. In the first year, we lost to Chicago in six. Then playing against Anaheim in a tough series going seven and going against San Jose, who ultimately went to the Stanley Cup Finals, and lost to them in seven,” said Predators wing and former Penguin James Neal. “It felt like we were right there. We learned a lot and matured a lot in those series.”
By the time the puck drops at PPG Paints Arena on Monday, all the statistics and all the prognostication will be meaningless. From that point on all that will matter is which team wins four games. By the time one team hoists the Cup while the other shuffles off into the postseaon to mull how oh so close they came, all that will matter is which team played better, not which team enjoyed more playoff experience.
“They obviously have more experience than we do. They’ve been to the Final before and won it before,” said Predators defenseman Roman Josi. “I don’t know if that is an advantage. All I know is we’re going to be ready to play.”