Predators poised to steal Stanley Cup opener from Penguins

Updated May 27, 2017 - 10:58 pm

The Predators already have turned Nashville into Smashville and the NHL’s surprise team of the Stanley Cup playoffs is four wins away from transforming Music City into a title town.

All they have to do is upset the Penguins, who are bidding to become the first team to repeat as Cup champion since the Red Wings in 1998, the year the Predators joined the NHL.

Handicapper Alex Smith (AxSmithSports.com) expects Nashville to do it. Pittsburgh, with home-ice advantage and two-time Hart Trophy winner Sidney Crosby, is the minus-175 series favorite but Smith is leaning toward the Predators, the plus-155 underdog.

“People are going to say Pittsburgh’s the more experienced team, but it’s clearly been hard for teams to repeat over two decades,” he said. “I’ll look at riding the wave of the team of destiny with Nashville. They’re a plus price, and the rest will help them out a lot more than Pittsburgh, which is coming off two tough seven-game series. That could lead to a hangover early.”

Smith called the Penguins’ seven-game upset of the Capitals and also predicted that Pittsburgh’s epic 3-2 double-overtime win over the Senators in Game 7 on Thursday would go to overtime. He’s backing the Predators at plus-140 on the money line Monday in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.

The home favorite has won seven of the last eight Final openers, but Smith is looking for well-rested Nashville to win its fourth series opener on the road this postseason after beating the Blackhawks, Blues and Ducks in Game 1s.

“While momentum is usually a key factor in the postseason, I feel a bit of rest for Nashville will prove positive against a severely banged-up Penguins club,” Smith said.

The Predators swept Chicago behind two shutouts by goalie Pekka Rinne and then limited St. Louis to one power-play goal in 16 chances before getting balanced scoring against Anaheim.

Sunset Station sports book director Chuck Esposito has been impressed by Nashville’s stout defense and speed.

“Defensively, they are just awfully good. Their goalie is standing on his head, and their defense is playing lights out,” he said. “They looked like they were playing at another speed level when they played the Blackhawks. I’m a Hawks fan and I watched every minute of every game. I knew from that series that I would not be surprised if they made the Stanley Cup Final.

“It will be an interesting series. It’s a contrast in styles. Pittsburgh’s offensive firepower against Nashville’s defense.”

The Penguins feature the two leading playoff scorers in Malkin (24 points) and Crosby (20) and four of the top seven when including Phil Kessel (19) and Jake Guentzel (16). Also, as well as Rinne has played — with a 1.70 goals-against average and .941 save percentage — Pittsburgh goalie Matthew Murray has been even better (1.35 GAA, .946).

Nashville’s dominance at home, where it’s 7-1 this postseason, might prove to be the difference.

“Their home-ice advantage has been huge for them,” Esposito said. “More than any other team.”

Contact reporter Todd Dewey at tdewey@reviewjournal.com or 702-266-6080. Follow @tdewey33 on Twitter.

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