Penguins, Predators overcame big injuries to reach Cup Final
No one is totally healthy this late in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, certainly not the last two teams standing.
The Pittsburgh Penguins knew they'd be without top defenseman Kris Letang for the entire playoffs because of neck surgery and winger Chris Kunitz for the start, and they lost starting goaltender Matt Murray in warmups before Game 1 in the first round. Along the way they dealt with injuries to defensemen Justin Schultz, Trevor Daley and Chad Ruhwedel, wingers Bryan Rust, Patric Hornqvist and Carl Hagelin and even played - and won - a game without captain Sidney Crosby.
The Nashville Predators endured the loss of rookie Kevin Fiala to a gruesome broken leg and soldiered on without forward Craig Smith before two potentially devastating injuries in the Western Conference final. Top center Ryan Johansen needed emergency, season-ending surgery for acute compartment syndrome in his thigh. An undisclosed injury to captain Mike Fisher put them in a tough spot.
Yet Pittsburgh beat the Ottawa Senators in double overtime in Game 7 and Nashville eliminated the Anaheim Ducks in six to reach the Cup Final battered, bruised and unbowed after overcoming a bevy of injuries.
''It's hard to win,'' Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. ''This is the hardest trophy in sports, in my mind. It's a war of attrition. And I don't think any team has endured more injuries than this group of players has endured, and we continue to find ways to win.''
The Ducks fell apart because of series-ending injuries to goaltender John Gibson and forwards Rickard Rakell and Patrick Eaves and weren't the same on defense because of shoulder injuries to Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen that will now require surgery. The Senators were weakened by injuries to defenseman Mark Borowiecki and winger Alexandre Burrows, and captain and best player Erik Karlsson played through pain and almost carried them past the Penguins.
But few hockey people will blame injuries for playoff defeats. Nashville and Pittsburgh showed that more than any Cup finalists in recent history.
''To take those pieces out is difficult - those are big pieces,'' Predators coach Peter Laviolette said. ''Craig Smith not being there. Kevin Fiala, Ryan Johansen, those are guys we'd like to have in the lineup but they're not available. So at that point there's only one choice, you're going to sink or swim.
''And you hear coaches say it so many times, well, with somebody coming out of the lineup, there's an opportunity for somebody else. That's the truth, but then those players that go in and take those opportunities, they have to make the most of it and respond to those situations.''
The Predators got a hat trick in Game 6 of the West final from de-facto No. 1 center Colton Sissons, who was a healthy scratch as recently as March, and got valuable contributions from the likes of Pontus Aberg and veteran forward Vern Fiddler. Frederick Gaudreau won 56.5 percent of his faceoffs against Anaheim in Games 5 and 6, his first two career playoff games.
''I just wanted to be a regular guy playing every single night to now arguably 1 or 2 center for us with Joey and Fish out, it's been a wild ride, but it feels good and I'm just enjoying it,'' Sissons said.
Nashville general manager David Poile pointed to 10 different players scoring game-winning goals as a sign of depth. When he goes into his team's locker room, he sees 25 happy players even though only 20 can dress each night.
''We're getting fantastic contributions from everybody,'' Poile said. ''That's why we were here today.''
The same is true for the Penguins, who got through the first two rounds thanks in large part to backup goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and pressed everyone from Mark Streit to Carter Rowney and Josh Archibald into duty as injuries piled up. Sullivan praised the resilience of his defense corps, which is now led by Schultz and Daley and will face another challenge against Nashville's star-studded blue line of P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm.
But perhaps the biggest reason the Penguins got past Ottawa was the return to health and return to form of Murray, who led them to the Cup a year ago. Murray
''I think I came back stronger than before,'' said Murray, who is 3-1 with a 1.35 goals-against average and .946 save percentage since returning. ''When I got back in there, I just tried to jump in and not kind of dip your toes in the water because then you're going to get beat. So just tried to jump in and be confident and just try and play my game.''
AP Freelancer Jim Diamond in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed to this report.
Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SWhyno .