PITTSBURGH — The dynasty that once appeared so certain is again in the offing for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Four victories against the Nashville Predators in the Stanley Cup Final would make Pittsburgh the first franchise to win back-to-back championships in nearly 20 years and the first in the parity-driven salary cap era. It would give stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin their third Cup, one more than their boss — owner Mario Lemieux — earned during his Hall of Fame career and check off whatever boxes remain unchecked for a duo that is becoming one of the most accomplished in NHL history.
Yet for all the resiliency the Penguins have shown during their injury-marred title defense, they are taking nothing for granted heading into Game 1 on Monday night.
Not their home-ice advantage. Not their massive edge in Stanley Cup Final experience (156 games vs. just five for the Predators, all by captain Mike Fisher while playing for Ottawa a decade ago). Not their ability under coach Mike Sullivan to thrive under the pressure that once seemed to crush them.
"I think the fact that a lot of guys went through it last year and they can draw from that experience is good," Crosby said. "But it doesn't guarantee anything."
Certainly not against the swaggering and well-rested Predators.
One of the last teams to qualify for the playoffs is now the last one standing between the Penguins and another parade in downtown Pittsburgh. Just don't call Nashville the underdog. The Predators have hardly played like one while beating Chicago in a lopsided four-game sweep then outrunning St. Louis and outlasting Anaheim to reach the Cup final for the first time.
"I know we were the eighth seed but we didn't feel like a group that we were," Fisher said.
Now the guys from the place that calls itself "Smashville" have a chance to become the first franchise to win the Cup in its first try since Carolina did 11 years ago. That team, like this one, is based in a place hardly considered hockey hotbed a generation ago. This team, like that one, was led by coach Peter Laviolette. This team, like that one, has nothing to lose.
"This year we were kind of mediocre in the standings and maybe that's what we needed just to come into the playoffs not really caring about home ice or who we were playing but just knowing comfortably and confidently as a team we could be in this position," said Predators defenseman P.K. Subban.
A position the Penguins have become increasingly comfortable in under Sullivan. The core that Crosby and Malkin led to the Cup in 2009 went through seven frustrating and fruitless springs before returning to the top in 2016. Now they're here again, aware of the stakes but hardly caught up in the hype.
"I think that it's a tough road no matter how you get here," Crosby said. "We found ways all season long and in the playoffs we've found ways. We've had that same mentality and that's helped us. I think that's kind of been our biggest strength."
Some things to look for in would could be a highly entertaining final:
HOMECOMINGS (KIND OF)
One of Pittsburgh general manager Jim Rutherford's first moves when he took over in 2014 was to send forward James Neal to Nashville for forward Patric Hornqvist. It's worked out beautifully for both sides. Hornqvist, who will be a game-time decision for Game 1 while recovering from upper-body injury, gives the Penguins a nearly intractable net-front presence. Neal possesses the kind of shot that can change the complexion of things dramatically.
Both sides have been forced to navigate their way through serious health issues . The Penguins are playing without star defenseman Kris Letang, out for the season after neck surgery. The Predators lost center Ryan Johansen to a severe thigh injury.
Pittsburgh's defense has thrived even without Letang . Nashville's lengthy layoff since the conference final mean Fisher and forward Craig Smith should be available for Game 1.
MADE IN THE USA
This is the first time in the history of the Cup final the coaches on both benches are American. Both Laviolette and Sullivan have stressed the series is about the players, but there's no denying the ability of both men to cut through the noise. Laviolette has given the Predators the edge they've always needed while Sullivan's straightforward approach and expert button-pushing have made Pittsburgh seemingly immune to any kind of Cup hangover.
PEKKA AND HIS FAB FOUR
Pittsburgh's strength is up front. Nashville's is in the back. Goaltender Pekka Rinne is playing the best hockey of his career at 34 (1.70 goals against in the playoffs) while the Predators' defense seems to know when jump in the fray. Nashville's defensemen combined for a league-high 181 points while also making Rinne's job easier at the other end of the ice.
Malkin called playing the Predators "the hardest challenge of my life."
"We see who's better," Malkin said. "I know it's going to be hard."
More AP NHL: http://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey