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No-name Penguins defense faces unheralded Predators centers

Associated Press logo Associated Press 29/05/2017 By STEPHEN WHYNO, AP Hockey Writer
FILE - At left, in an April 30, 2017, file photo, Nashville Predators goalie Pekka Rinne, of Finland, plays against the St. Louis Blues during the third period in Game 3 of a second-round NHL hockey playoff series, in Nashville, Tenn. At right, in a May 30, 2016, file photo, Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray (30) plays against the San Jose Sharks in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final series, in Pittsburgh. Matt Murray, the 23-year-old starting goaltender for Pittsburgh, has already won a Cup and is fresh because an injury cost him the first two rounds as Marc-Andre Fleury got the Penguins through. On the other side, 34-year-old Pekka Rinne is in the Cup Final for the first time but is putting up historic numbers in the playoffs.(AP Photo/File) © The Associated Press FILE - At left, in an April 30, 2017, file photo, Nashville Predators goalie Pekka Rinne, of Finland, plays against the St. Louis Blues during the third period in Game 3 of a second-round NHL hockey playoff series, in Nashville, Tenn. At right, in a May 30, 2016, file photo, Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray (30) plays against the San Jose Sharks in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final series, in Pittsburgh. Matt Murray, the 23-year-old starting goaltender for Pittsburgh, has already won a Cup and is fresh because an injury cost him the first two rounds as Marc-Andre Fleury got the Penguins through. On the other side, 34-year-old Pekka Rinne is in the Cup Final for the first time but is putting up historic numbers in the playoffs.(AP Photo/File)

The star centers and no-name defense of the Pittsburgh Penguins. The standout defensemen and unheralded centers of the Nashville Predators.

The Stanley Cup Final is full of intriguing matchups, with Game 1 coming up Monday night in Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh goes for its second consecutive title, led by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Without top defenseman Kris Letang, the Penguins have to rely on their blue-line depth to help their talented forwards.

Nashville has arguably the best defense of any Cup finalist in recent history, led by P.K. Subban , Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm. Now without top center Ryan Johansen, the Predators hope captain Mike Fisher is back for Game 1 to give Colton Sissons a break.

Nashville coach Peter Laviolette's system counts on his defensemen to jump up in the play and contribute. The same is true for Mike Sullivan's Penguins, though Justin Schultz, Trevor Daley, Olli Maatta and Co. all have to put it together to make up for not having Letang.

"Kris Letang played 28 minutes a game, plays in all situations," GM Jim Rutherford said. "We're fortunate that we have the right guys that can play that role."

Crosby, Malkin and wingers such as Phil Kessel drive the Penguins' offense just as Filip Forsberg and the defensemen do for the Predators. And Nashville makes everything happen from its blue line even after trading Shea Weber and Seth Jones within the past 16 months.

"It's remarkable we were able to trade (Weber and Jones and lose Ryan Suter in free agency in 2012) and still have arguably one of the best defenses in the National Hockey League," general manager David Poile said. "That's a huge wow that we were able to do that and still be competitive at the defensive position."

Some other things to watch in this intriguing series:

NEVER GO OUT OF STYLE

After beating the trap-oriented Ottawa Senators in the Eastern Conference final, the Penguins know to expect a faster pace against the Predators. Sullivan isn't worried, saying Pittsburgh has the ability to "take what the game presents."

"We know that Nashville has a much different identity than Ottawa," Sullivan said. "The nature of the games are going to be very different. But we believe that we have the type of players and the ability level to have success in that environment."

RUST VS. REST

Particularly in Game 1, the Predators having seven days off to the Penguins' three could make a difference early. Pittsburgh is 11-2 in these playoffs when scoring first, and Nashville is 7-2. Laviolette's team got some extra practice time in, and the rest could be beneficial after Fisher missed the final two games of the West final.

THE YOUNG AND THE FINAL-LESS

Matt Murray, the 23-year-old starting goaltender for Pittsburgh, has already won a Cup and is fresh because an injury cost him the first two rounds as Marc-Andre Fleury got the Penguins through. On the other side, 34-year-old Pekka Rinne is in the Cup Final for the first time but is putting up historic numbers in the playoffs. Rinne's .945 save percentage is third all-time for a single postseason, and if he and Murray keep this up it will be a low-scoring series.

DEPTH ON DEPTH

When so much focus is put on shutting down stars, it's often the depth forwards who make a difference. For the Penguins, that effort is led by ageless fourth-line center Matt Cullen and for the Predators, it's 23-year-old Swede Pontus Aberg. Pittsburgh beat San Jose on depth a year ago, but Poile called Nashville's forwards much improved, and if that pans out there's reason to believe the Predators can be the second eighth seed in the salary-cap era to win the Stanley Cup.

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Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SWhyno

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More AP NHL: http://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

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