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Nashville Pittsburgh take to the ice in NHL Stanley Cup finals

Nashville to be an underdog once again when it takes the ice Monday night for the Stanley Cup finals in Pittsburgh against the defending champs

Surprising Predators surged from being the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference to their first finals, while the Penguins went seven in the Western final versus Ottawa

Arnie Leshin

By Arnie Leshin

It was nearly the midnight hour in Tennessee, but in its Music City of Nashville, all eyes were on the televised hockey game.

It was about its Eastern Conference champion Predators. They knew they were going to hit the road and face the Western Conference winner in Monday night’s first game of the NHL’s Stanley Cup. The question was, where?

Of course it didn’t matter to a franchise excited about making the Cup finals for the first time in its 19 years. It came in as an eighth seed and began each round on the road. The results? First-game victories at Chicago, at St. Louis and the last stop in Anaheim.

But in a double-overtime thriller in Pittsburgh that began on Thursday night and almost ended Friday morning, Nashville got the news that it was heading for the Steel City to play the defending champions. And that the opening face-off will be on Monday.

The lengthy game versus 6th seeded Ottawa ended at 3-2. It came the day after the Predators’ seventh-game 6-3 win over 3rd seeded Anaheim, and it was Chris Kunitz beating goalkeeper Craig Anderson at 5:09 of the second OT. It was his second goal of the game, and they were his firsts of the playoffs.

Justin Schultz added the other in his return from an upper-body injury, while keeper Matt Murray stopped 28 shots on his 23rd birthday. Anderson, in turn, came up with 39 saves.

Now the Penguins now have to cool off surprising Nashville in order to become the first back-to-back champion since the Detroit Red Wings in 1998.

For Ottawa, it was a big disappointment. It was playing its best of the season, was ever bit as good as Pittsburgh, came back at 1-0 to force a tie, than scored late in the third quarter to force the 2-2 deadlock that resulted in one, than two overtimes before a nervous, cheering packed arena.

The Senators made it to a seventh game by winning game six, 3-1, on their home ice. They hadn’t made it to the Cup final since 2005.

But Pitt was successful in becoming the first defending champion to return to the finals since Detroit in 2009. It outshot Ottawa, 42-29, and in the seven games, outscored Ottawa, 21-12.

Now it’s a final without a No. 1 seed. Blame Nashville, which swept its division-winning Chicago Blackhawks in the first round. Blame Pittsburgh, which went seven games to eliminate the No. 1 seeded Washington Capitals, the team with the best record in the league.

No doubt the Penguins will be favored, exactly like the Blackhawks, Blues and Ducks were against the Predators. So it’s amazing how far this franchise has gone in its best-ever campaign. Who would have thought that it would be calm, cool and confident?

If its faithful fans that set a season-record attendance mark weren’t thinking that way, they probably are now, and are anxiously waiting for the finals to take the ice. They will glued to their TVs the first two away games, and then begin their support right at home.

It’s not only Nashville, the home of country music and the Grand Ole Opry, but the entire state. During the NFL season, they can root for the Tennessee Titans, and then switch over to the Predators for some action on the ice rink

Pittsburgh is tournament-tested, having been in existence ages before Nashville got its franchise. It has superstar Sidney Crosby, plenty of experience, and its injury list has dwindled down as the playoffs advanced.

But if the Panthers haven’t heard, these Predators have come together for a remarkable stretch run that they hope to convert into a Stanley Cup championship, to hoist the prestige silver cup.

It’s USA versus USA, Pittsburgh against Nashville.

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