PITTSBURGH -- Colton Sissons used to ride busses as a Milwaukee Admiral in the AHL.
When he made it to the NHL, he spent his nights pondering how he’d make an energetic splash in the lineup as a third- or fourth-line grinder.
Now he’ll lie in bed, staring at the ceiling, picturing himself taking draws against Sidney friggin’ Crosby or Evgeni friggin’ Malkin in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final. Whoa.
Sissons’ mission: counterpunch the mighty Penguins offense as part of the Nashville Predators’ patchwork first line alongside Filip Forsberg and Pontus Aberg. Sissons will try to conjure another miraculous performance after his stunning hat trick in Game 6 of the Western Conference final helped bury the Anaheim Ducks.
“It’s exciting, it’s nervewracking, this whole process has been the entire time,” Sissons said Sunday during Stanley Cup media day at Pittsburgh’s PPG Paints Arena. “I’m just looking forward to another challenge playing against the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, guys up and down the lineup. They’re the defending champions, and I couldn’t ask for a better storyline.”
It all feels a little surreal for Sissons, and his journey is a microcosm of what the Preds have accomplished as the first No. 16 seed to reach the final. They established themselves as far more than a plucky underdog in the first round of the playoffs when they tossed the powerhouse Chicago Blackhawks aside in four games. The Preds took on the St. Louis Blues in Round 2 and were suddenly the favorite. In Round 3, it looked on paper like Nashville finally met its match. The Preds’ top four defense quartet of Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, P.K. Subban and Mattias Ekholm is the envy of the league, but Anaheim had Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler down the middle. The center position was a major edge for Anaheim on paper, and that was when Nashville had Ryan Johansen and Mike Fisher healthy.
Fisher went down in Game 4 with an undisclosed injury, as did Johansen, who required thigh surgery and is done in the playoffs. Nashville had to roll with Sissons, Frederick Gaudreau, Calle Jarnkrok and Vernon Fiddler as its centers. Somehow, that group persevered, especially Sissons, who found magic with Forsberg and Aberg in that amazing Game 6 breakout.
“He can do it all,” Forsberg said. “He’s been playing mostly on the third and fourth line on this year and been playing really well, a solid two-way player. But we played together in Milwaukee, and I saw the offensive upside he had already there. And he got the chance to prove that even more the last two games, and you guys saw the results.”
It’s one thing to persevere in a two-game sample size matched up against Getzlaf and Kesler, though. Battling Crosby and Malkin is something entirely different. Yes, Nashville’s ‘Big Four’ on defense logs about 50 minutes per game in these playoffs and will do a lot of the heavy lifting against the Penguins’ top two lines. But there’s absolutely no question Pittsburgh’s edge at center is the biggest advantage either team has over the other in this series.
Whether the Preds can keep up will come down to how much the likes of Sissons can continue to overachieve. The good news: Fisher appears healthy enough to give it a go in Game 1. He’s the only Pred with Stanley Cup final experience, having played for the Ottawa Senators during their 2006-07 run. And he’ll do everything in his power to share what wisdom he’s absorbed at age 36. If anyone will listen, it’s Sissons, who said Sunday he actually modelled his game after Fisher growing up. Sissons loved Fisher’s two-way style and tried to mimic it. He sees them as more friend-teammate than fan-idol now, of course, but still admires the way Fisher carries himself, especially off the ice.
“It’s definitely an honor for him to say that,” Fisher said. “He’s one of those guys who’s played unbelievable for us and done a great job. This year, he’s overcome a lot, too and really stepped up his game. We’ve got a lot of young guys like him. Right now, it’s just about trying not to be overwhelmed by the whole stage and making sure guys relax and play and have fun. We’ve got a pretty cool opportunity here, and we want to continue to get better as a team.”
So can Sissons continue to vastly exceed expectations for the Preds? It’s not the most far-fetched idea in the world. Sissons was a second-round draft choice in 2012, a solid 200-foot player with the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets, and he’s a two-time 25-goal man in the AHL. Forsberg wasn’t kidding about that. It’s not unfathomable that Sissons could continue vibing with guys like Forsberg and Aberg, with whom he’d already built bonds in Milwaukee.
“I don’t think you really can underestimate them, because they’re in the final,” said Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta, when asked about Nashville’s relatively faceless group of centers. “They’re a good team. They’re good players. The biggest thing for them is they’re hard workers, everybody. They still have a lot of skill. We’ve got to match their compete level, because we know they’re going to bring all of it.”
And even if Johansen was healthy, center was never going to be Nashville’s strength in this series. The Preds get by with their elite defense corps, with piping-hot goaltender Pekka Rinne and with the collective feistiness of their forwards on the forecheck. That was enough to overcome a very good Anaheim team – a division winner, don’t forget.
“There are a lot of meetings that go on internally with our players,” said Predators coach Peter Laviolette. “Certainly we’ll miss Ryan. I don’t think anybody can argue that. He was a big horse for us down the middle that was able to match up against anybody. We had to go a couple of games without Ryan. Our guys responded OK. “Colton in that last game really stepped up. We put him in position. We’ve had to go without players all playoffs, from Kevin Fiala to guys missing in the lineup. Our guys have gotten it done. Certainly you’re talking about a couple good centermen that we have to face. We had a couple good centermen last round that we had to face.”
Hint, hint. Laviolette is confident his team can neutralize Crosby and Malkin the same way it did Anaheim’s centers. Or Laviolette is at least good at fudging that confidence.
Now it’s time to toss both teams on the ice and let theory become reality. Now the Preds try to pull off their greatest underdog story of all: summiting the mountain that is Pittsburgh’s centers. There’s no stiffer test any team can face in hockey today than Crosby and Malkin.