A first-timer vs. a long-timer. The game's best defense corps against legendary forwards. A veteran goalie getting a long-awaited first chance against a kid trying to go 2 for 2. Smashville vs. the Steel City.
There are no shortage of storylines for a highly intriguing Stanley Cup final that opens Monday night in Pittsburgh as the Penguins host the Nashville Predators. It's obviously not going to have the national cachet of LeBron-Steph III but the intensely regional nature of hockey will certainly benefit from this series as a new market gets its first chance on the game's biggest stage against this sport's version of the Cavs or Warriors.
It's easy to forget both of these teams nearly moved in 2007 and very well could be in different places today. The Penguins were long rumored to be headed to Kansas City until Mario Lemieux's ownership group finally hammered out a deal to build their new arena, while the Predators were close to going to Hamilton, Ont., that summer until local ownership stepped in and purchased the team to keep it out of the hands of former BlackBerry mogul Jim Balsillie. Hamilton and Las Vegas were both reportedly on the Penguins' radar as well.
Media Day is Sunday in PPG Paints Arena and here are some of the subjects the teams are sure to be addressing:
Going for a repeat -- The Penguins are trying to become the first team to win back-to-back Cup championships since the Detroit Red Wings of 1997 and 1998. Just by making the final, they've become the first expansion-era team since 1967 to get to the final in consecutive years three times (1991-92, 2008-09 and 2016-17). With super teams dominating the landscape over the decades, we've never gone this far without a repeat champion. And the NHL's drought without a repeat winner is the longest in the four major sports.
Going for the first time -- The Predators were born in 1998 and had not played in a conference final until beating the Anaheim Ducks this spring. Now they're playing for the Cup for the first time. So who does it leave among expansion-era teams that have never had the chance? The list is now only Columbus, Minnesota, Winnipeg and Arizona. One can only imagine what the atmosphere will be like in Bridgestone Arena next weekend for Games Three and Four.
The defense not resting -- The Predators have a mega top-four in P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis that has baffled the offensive stars of the Blackhawks, Blues and Ducks. The Penguins, meanwhile, have not had Kris Letang for the entire postseason after neck surgery and are trying to take the rare step of winning the Cup without a true star on defense. They're surviving with the likes of Olli Maatta, Justin Schultz, Trevor Daley, Ron Hainsey, Brian Dumoulin and Ian Cole on the back end. Former Sabre Chad Ruhwedel, who suffered a concussion against Ottawa and may not be ready for the start of the final, has also seen big minutes.
You wonder how the Pens are going to be able to attack the Nashville back end, whether Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will have any more luck than did, say, Patrick Kane, Vladimir Tarasenko or Ryan Getzlaf. Said Pens winger Chris Kunitz, when asked by NBC about the Predators after his series-winning goal against Ottawa: "They have four Eric Karlssons."
In the nets -- Pekka Rinne, 34, has been the mainstay in the Nashville net since 2008 but had a relatively pedestrian regular season at times (2.42/.918). In the playoffs, he's been a brick wall (12-4, 1.70/.941). Matt Murray led the Pens to the Cup last year but just got back in the net during the Eastern Conference final after getting hurt in the warmup prior to Game One of the opening round against Columbus. Since taking over in relief in Game Three at Ottawa, Murray is at 1.35 and .946.
Crosby's 12 months -- At age 29, Sid the Kid perhaps has never been better than he has in the last year. He won a Conn Smythe Trophy as the Pens beat San Jose in last year's final, then led Canada to victory in the World Cup of Hockey in September. Now he has the Penguins back for another Cup run. Crosby led the NHL with 44 goals in the regular season, the second-highest total of his career. He's got seven goals and 20 points over 18 postseason games thus far.
Coaching -- In Mike Sullivan vs. Peter Laviolette, we have the first matchup of American head coaches in Cup history. Sullivan can become the first coach to go back to back since Scotty Bowman did it for the '90s Red Wings. Laviolette won the Cup in '06 for Carolina, lost the final in 2010 for Philadelphia and is just the fourth coach to lead three teams to the final, joining Bowman, Dick Irvin and Mike Keenan. Hall of Famer Phil Housley, the former Sabres star now a Preds assistant, figures to get a lot of attention because of the Nashville defense and because of the clear interest Buffalo and Florida have about talking to him about their head coaching slot when the series ends. New Sabres GM Jason Botterill is likely to talk to Penguins assistant Rick Tocchet and could also interview fellow Pittsburgh aide Jacques Martin.
Injuries -- The Preds lost No. 1 center Ryan Johansen to a serious leg injury against Anaheim and he's out for the final. So is winger Kevin Fiala, who suffered a gruesome leg fracture against St. Louis. Captain Mike Fisher has returned to practice and should play. The Penguins are without Letang and have had a steady stream of players in and out of the lineup all spring. Patric Hornqvist (upper body) is the most significant absentee up front.
Bold in Gold -- Both teams feature gold as their prominent color and fans will be proudly waving it in both arenas. The atmosphere should be super charged for Games Three, Four and Six in Nashville, where country music celebrities have taken their turns singing the national anthems and members of the NFL's Tennessee Titans have been among the towel wavers firing up the crowd.
Injuries muddle Ducks' moves
Some pretty stunning news with long-range ramifications for several teams came out of Anaheim Thursday as the Ducks held locker cleanout following the loss to Nashville.
GM Bob Murray announced defense standouts Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen both need shoulder surgery for torn labrums, with Lindholm likely to be sidelined 4-5 months and a clear question mark to be on time for next season. According to Murray, Vatanen will be out even longer and is almost certain to not be ready for the 2017-18 campaign.
The Ducks have an abundance of young defensemen and also have to protect veteran Kevin Bieksa in the expansion draft (unless they can get him to waive a no-movement clause). Their expansion pickle, plus the likely need to sign Cam Fowler to a long-term extension, has Anaheim as the club most teams have targeted for help on defense. The Sabres, Toronto, Philadelphia and Tampa Bay are all on that list, oogling at the likes of young players like the 23-year-old Lindholm, Shea Theodore (21), Brandon Montour (22) and the 25-year-old tandem of Vatanen and Josh Manson.
Lindholm was clearly the one player the Ducks were likely not moving but the injuries now lead to dilemmas for Murray. Does he buy out Bieksa to open a spot? Work a deal with Vegas GM George McPhee to protect the assets on defense? Does Murray dare leave Vatanen unprotected on the theory Vegas would not take a player unable to play until well into next season? Do teams cut down offers for Vatanen because of that?
The Ducks were already an fascinating offseason story. The injuries just add to the complications across the league.
Bogosian nominated for Clancy Award
Defenseman Zach Bogosian is the Sabres' nominee for the King Clancy Memorial Award, given to the player who best exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice and who has made a significant humanitarian contribution to his community. The winner will be announced as part of the NHL Awards show in Las Vegas.
Voting is done by a panel of representatives from the Professional Hockey Writers' Association and the NHL Broadcasters' Association. (Full Disclosure: This corner was one of the voters this year).
Bogosian and his wife, Bianca, founded "The Bogo Bunch" in 2015, creating a charity to support those affected by cancer. The foundation hosted its inaugural "Casino for a Cause" in January, raising $40,000 for Roswell Park and $12,00 for the Buffalo Wellness Center. Bogosian has assisted Roswell's Bald for Bucks program and the Cerebral Palsy Foundation. He also purchased a suite in KeyBank Center that was set aside for charities to use during Sabres games. Those groups met Bogosian after the game and received locker room tours.
Since the King Clancy Award was first presented in 1988 to Calgary's Lanny McDonald, the lone winner from the Sabres was current broadcaster Rob Ray. He was honored in 1999 for charity work that included organizations such as the March of Dimes, Make-A-Wish and the Roswell Park Cancer Institute.
Vegas wants to be 'the world's team'
The Vegas Golden Knights announced a TV deal Tuesday with ROOT Sports. No big news on the surface. What was interesting about the announcement was the theories owner Bill Foley had about the new team's potential reach.
"We get 42 million visitors a year in Las Vegas,” Foley said. “We can have fans in China, in India, in Europe, in Russia. We really can be the world’s team.”
While that remains to be seen, what is clear as that the Golden Knights will be a team for the entire Rocky Mountain region. Foley has two homes in Montana and wanted that state in his team's TV reach and ROOT will show Golden Knights games to Montanta, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho and Northeastern Nevada. The deal also means blackouts in Las Vegas of games involving the Kings and Ducks, both of whom have been on the air in Nevada for many years.
More air waves
---The Devils are drawing the ire of their fans for not renewing the contract of popular radio analyst Sherry Ross, who became the first woman to call play-by-play of an NHL game in 2009. The former New York City sportswriter moved on to the air at the urging of former Devils GM Lou Lamoriello and tweeted her thanks to him by saying, "Professionalism and loyalty are qualities prized by LL. Hope I didn't disappoint. I hope there will be more women broadcasters in the future."
ESPECIALLY want to thank former Devils GM Lou Lamoriello, for encouraging me to tackle a completely new career and make some history (1/2)
— Sherry Ross (@SherryDarlingNJ) May 23, 2017
Ross tweeted thanks to longtime broadcast partner Matt Loughlin. As for the sudden turn in her employment status, Ross also tweeted, "I wish nothing but the best for the Devils players and coaches. But keep an eye on eBay for lots of NJD merchandise on sale soon!"
Ross is one of those people who is a walking hockey encyclopedia. Other teams should be on the phone to her quickly. They wouldn't be getting a great female broadcaster or hockey reporter. They'd be getting a great broadcaster and reporter. Period.
---Good move by the NHL to get the Cup final going and gain a little momentum among sports fans before the behemoth known as the Cleveland-Golden State NBA Finals series gets started.
Stanley Cup Games One and Two will be played before the NBA tips off June 1 and the biggest victory for the league is none of its games are going head-to-head on the same night with the NBA series, which will obviously be a ratings monster with the third straight meeting between the Cavs and Warriors.
---TNT's Charles Barkley at halftime of Thursday's Cleveland-Boston blowout while the Penguins and Senators were battling in Game Seven: "I'm gonna sneak back to the hotel and watch the hockey game, it's 1-1 y'all."