The Stanley Cup Finals begin on Monday night between Pittsburgh and Nashville. The Penguins are a 20/33 (-165) favorite this year, but if the recent past is a barometer, it ought to be a long series. Eleven of the last 13 Cup Finals have gone at least six games, and there has not been a sweep since the Red Wings blitzed the Capitals in 1998.
Let’s look at the two teams and see if we can come up with a logical wager.
Who Will Win the Stanley Cup?
The Penguins tallied 111 points during the regular season, second-most in the NHL, but behind division rival Washington. They got off to a hot start in the post-season after being slotted in a tough quartet with Columbus and Washington: they had no difficulty with the Blue Jackets, winning in five games, and then led the Capitals three games to one. Things have been rockier since. Washington outscored Pittsburgh 9-2 in Games 5 and 6, sending the series to DC for Game 7. Marc-Andre Fleury pitched a series-clinching shutout, sending the Pens to face Ottawa in the Eastern Finals.
Pittsburgh looked like the better team in most of that series, but it again went to seven games, and they needed double-overtime heroics from Chris Kunitz to get back to the Stanley Cup Finals. Now they have the chance to become the first team since Detroit in 1997 and 1998 to win back-to-back titles.
There are obvious reasons to like the Pens. They were the top scoring team in the league in the regular season and their 3.05 GPG is best in the postseason, too. In a shocker to nobody, Pittsburgh is very good on the power play, clicking at around 25% in the playoffs. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel are as good an offensive trio as there is in the league. Their defensive corps is not great, especially without Kris Letang, but they don’t have to be. In addition to a top-flight offense, the Pens have solid goaltending. Fleury was solid for the first 2.5 playoff series while starter Matt Murray was sidelined, and Murray (who led the team to the cup last year) has been (mostly) terrific since returning.
Over the last 11 years, Pittsburgh has been one if not the best franchise in the NHL. It is no surprise they are back in the Stanley Cup Finals again.
The Predators’ history is pretty horrid. They were awful for their first five years of existence before reaching the playoffs in 2004. They didn’t win their first postseason series until 2011. The franchise has turned a corner in recent years, though. They’ve now reached the playoffs in three straight years and have improved everytime: they bowed out in the first round in 2015, the second round in 2016, and are obviously still kicking in 2017, despite having the lowest point-total of any team to crack the bracket.
In the postseason, Nashville has made it look shockingly easy, riding its deep defense and some phenomenal play between the pipes from Pekka Rinne. The Predators swept Chicago and got by the Blues and Ducks in six to reach their first Stanley Cup finals.
During the regular season Nashville was 11th in scoring and 16th in goals allowed. Both of those areas have shown marked improvement in the second season: their 1.81 goals against is tops in the league and half a goal better than the Penguins. On offense, the Preds are the second-highest scoring team behind Pittsburgh.
Rinne, who has been a Vezina Trophy finalist three times, had a good but not great regular season. He and Nashville’s top-four d-men (Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi, and P.K. Subban) will all need to play like they have throughout the playoffs to bring the Cup to Nashville.
How to Wager
It’s a little bit hard to back the Predators. Though they are stronger on defense and in goal, the consistency factor of Pittsburgh’s offense feels more dependable than Nashville’s back end. Pittsburgh profiles a lot more like recent champs (Penguins, Blackhawks, Kings) and the Preds feel like runner-ups (Sharks, Lightning). That said, the Stanley Cup Finals almost always go long, and Nashville is 7-1 at home in the playoffs. My advice: take Pittsburgh to win, and if you’re looking for a bigger payout, consider betting on them at 4/1 to win in seven games.
Photo Credit: Andy from Pittsburgh [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.