By Larry Fine
(Reuters) – A stellar attack collides with a spectacular defense as the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins take on the upstart Nashville Predators in a Stanley Cup Finals full of contrasts starting on Monday.
Something has got to give when the best-of-seven for the National Hockey League crown gets underway in the Steel City of Pittsburgh and home favorites Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and friends try to work the puck past brilliant Finnish goalkeeper Pekka Rinne.
The Penguins could become the first team in 19 years to hoist the huge silver trophy in back-to-back years since the Detroit Red Wings, and claim their third title in a decade.
“You just think of it as a great opportunity,” said Penguins captain Crosby, easing the pressure of another title chase. “We don’t really look at it as back-to-back.”
The Music City of Nashville, far better known for honky-tonks than for hockey, have been entertained by the artistry of Rinne, who has allowed a miniscule 1.70 goals against average in leading the Predators to their first NHL title shot.
Rinne shut down the firepower of the Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues and Anaheim Ducks on the way to the Finals.
“It’s a dream come true,” Rinne said. “But it’s a funny thing, though. With everything that’s happening around us, you still feel hungry, and now we have a chance to play for the Cup. It’s a pretty amazing feeling.”
Pittsburgh had the second-best record in the regular season, while the Predators were the No. 16 team.
The Penguins have four of the top six scorers this postseason in forwards Malkin (playoff-leading 24 points), Crosby (20), Phil Kessel (19) and Jake Guentzel (16).
Nashville is paced by forward Filip Forsberg, who has 15 points (eight goals, seven assists).
But the hungry Predators have not needed to pepper the net with goals given the stinginess of Rinne and his lively front men including Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm, Roman Jose and P.K. Subban, who have helped ward off enemy attackers.
Despite the disparity in their records, with Pittsburgh amassing 111 regular season points to Nashville’s 94, they have both earned the same number of points (56) since Jan. 1, and in the playoffs, the Predators are 12-4, and the Penguins 12-7.
“I think they’re a great hockey team,” said Penguins defenseman Ian Cole.
“They’re a special hockey team and probably one of the best D-corps in the league. That’s going to be a challenge for us to solve.
“Also, solving (Predators goalie) Pekka Rinne is going to be a challenge.”
Predators center and captain Mike Fisher returned to the ice and participated in practice Thursday for the first time since taking a knee to the head in Game Four of the Western Conference Finals on May 18.
“I feel pretty good,” Fisher said after practice. “Still not cleared (to play), but it felt good to get out there with the guys.”
(Reporting by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Andrew Both)