The Nashville Predators and Pittsburgh Penguins are two very different defensive units heading into the Stanley Cup Final. One has remained healthy and been a huge factor in their team’s success while the other has fought through injuries, including the absence of its top player, to not hamstring the team’s success as it attempts to win back-to-back titles.
Nashville’s defense has allowed just 1.81 goals and 29.7 shots per game through three rounds. Pittsburgh has given up 2.32 goals and 30.2 shots per game. One unit goes heavy with its top four while the other spreads the minutes around.
Let’s take a look at both blue lines.
It’s quite the thing that the Penguins have made it this far without the services of Kris Letang. For what he does from the back in helping transition, quickly moving the puck up ice and quarterbacking the power play, Pittsburgh has been able to overcome that massive hole in their lineup.
Justin Schultz, their only right-handed shot with Chad Ruhwedel out, has stepped up in his place. In Game 7 against the Ottawa Senators, he showed how valuable he’s become when the Penguins had a 65 percent edge in shot attempts with him on the ice (via Natural Stat Trick). He’s currently battling an upper-body injury of some sort, which could be a concern going forward if re-aggravated.
Also contributing in positive ways has been Trevor Daley who has been a solid possession driver since coming back from an injury of his own. Like Schultz, the Penguins were out-chancing the Senators whenever he was on the ice. Brian Dumoulin, Ian Cole, Ron Hainsey and Olli Maatta were also enjoyed decent series against Ottawa, but not without a few moments either having issues getting out of their own zone or preventing scoring chances.
It’s been a job by committee, with Sullivan distributing the ice time pretty evenly with his main top six each playing between 19-21 minutes a night. The Predators will test Pittsburgh’s back end, a group that can’t afford any more injuries arriving.
Only one of the NHL’s final four teams had production from their backend that hit double digits. The Predators got 11 of their 47 goals through three rounds from Roman Josi (5), Ryan Ellis (4) and P.K. Subban (2). They were also the only team of the quartet that included the Pittsburgh Penguins, Ottawa Senators and Anaheim Ducks to play just six defensemen this postseason.
Going back to the Barry Trotz days, the one area you could say the Predators were strong in was defense. Now, under Peter Laviolette, that defense is still strong and carrying its share of the offense.
Nashville has gone heavy in deploying their top four of Subban (25:52) and Mattias Ekholm (25:34), and Ellis (23:59) and Josi (25:56) for nearly half the game. Matt Irwin and Yannick round out the blue line playing just over 11 minutes a night.
Subban and Ekholm, as they’ve done in previous series, will get the task of shutting down Pittsburgh’s top line, led by Sidney Crosby. The pair have only allowed six ES goals against when on the ice together this spring, compared to the 12 given up with Josi and Ellis, who will see a lot of Evgeni Malkin, out there.
ADVANTAGE: Predators. Their top four is possibly the best group in the NHL and it’s shown in how they’ve been able to limit scoring opportunities against and quiet the production of the big guns of their opponents. The Penguins have done a fine job given the hand dealt to them, but between their blue line and Pekka Rinne behind them, there’s a reason why it’s so tough to score on Nashville. PIttsburgh’s forward will find themselves having a tough time to do so.
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