Two games into the Stanley Cup Final and one thing that immediately sticks out is how incredibly physical the series has been.
Both the Nashville Predators and Pittsburgh Penguins made the playoffs based on their speed and ability to control the game on both ends of the ice. With clearly different paths getting to the Final, Nashville had to adapt its game in playing the two most physical teams among the 16 playoff teams in the St. Louis Blues and Anaheim Ducks.
In both the Blues and Ducks, Nashville utilized the size and strength of players like Cody McLeod and Vernon Fiddler to matchup against the opposition and send a message that the Predators werent going to be pushed around the ice.
Now on the greatest of stages in the NHL, Nashvilles led the way with a heavy dose of the same physicality itused in the previous two series trying to send an early, and similar, message to the Penguins.
The problem? The referees arent having any of it. And its not phasing Pittsburgh one bit.
— FOX Sports Tennessee (@PredsOnFSTN) June 3, 2017
The Eastern Conference champions absorbed every blow the Predators dished out and came ahead 2-0 in this best-of-seven series. But most concerningly, Nashville was easily the better team sans a handful of mental lapses in both games.
Those lapses, though, blew both games wide open. The Predators climbed out of one hole just to lose late, but couldnt climb out of the second one.
Which begs the question: was the level of physicality the Nashville needed to win the Western Conference engrained in the minds of the players?
I think a little bit? The game is being called a little differently, said Predators forward Harry Zolnierczyk. Regardless if its right or wrong, thats the way its being called and thats on us to realize thats the way its going. The penalties we took were penalties. Whether they were let go in St. Louis or Anaheim, that was a different story. Its being called tight right now and that shouldnt surprise us. We just got to make sure we smarten up and stay out of the box.
Zolnierczyk, along with forward P.A. Parenteau, could be entering the lineup tonight in place of McLeod and Fiddler, bringing Nashville back to a speed-based lineup that was primarily used in taking down the Chicago Blackhawks in four games. While the Predators will be without the services of both Ryan Johansen and Kevin Fiala, adding a couple of quicker elements to balance out their lines should present the Penguins with a series of different challenges for Game 3.
Not only will Pittsburgh be having to battle the atmosphere of Bridgestone Arena, but also a settled-down Predators team looking to play a more penalty-free game.
— FOX Sports Tennessee (@PredsOnFSTN) June 1, 2017
Size was a factor definitely in the last two series just for how heavy and how nasty the game was played and how much was let go, in terms of what was allowed, Zolnierczyk said. Pittsburgh tries to play a skilled, possession-type game and were looking to continue our game. We like to attack. I thought weve done a great job of that in Game 1 and Game 2and well look to continue to do the same in Game 3. We just need to make sure were limiting any of the opportunities were giving them.
Predators players have made it clear that its a necessity at this point to stay out of penalty trouble in Game 3 and ongoing for the remainder of this series. Not only does it give Pittsburgh an opportunity with the deadliest power play in the playoffs, but it also hits a giant reset button for Nashville -- whatever momentum the Preds had gained prior to taking the penalty effectively gets wiped out. Theres only so many times you can cross-check an opponent in the back before you end up in the penalty box.
Nashville has been a huge proponent of momentum during the playoffs, both positive and negative. Weve seen what the Predators can do with an upswing of positive energy, fighting back from deficits and adversity, and as recently asGame 2weve seen what a heap of negativity can do.
Yet, if the Predators continue to fight mental mistakes in Game 3as well, there might be an early appearance of the Stanley Cup in Nashville come Monday night -- and not in a good way for the Preds.