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STRENGTH VS. STRENGTH

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IN A SHOWDOWN PITTING NASHVILLE'S DOMINANT DEFENSEMEN AGAINST PITTSBURGH'S SUPERSTAR CENTERS, WHO WILL GIVE THEIR TEAM THE ULTIMATE LEG UP?

FOR 85 MINUTES and nine seconds on May 25, the hockey gods watched over Pittsburgh and held their breaths. If not an outright war waged for the soul of the modern NHL, Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals at least pitted two contrasting styles, with a Stanley Cup finals date against the Predators at stake—the quick-strike Penguins, striving to become the first back-to-back champions of the cap era, against the Ambien factory from Ottawa, whose trap-based strategy had been summed up by Senators forward Clarke MacArthur this way: "We want to bore them out of the building."

Entertainment prevailed over ennui five minutes into the second overtime period, when left wing Chris Kunitz clubbed a knuckling one-timer over Ottawa goalie Craig Anderson's right shoulder for a 3--2 Penguins victory. At that moment, network television suits and hockey deities rejoiced. Pittsburgh and Nashville might not be schematic opposites, but their competing strengths make for the juiciest possible matchup. "That's the way it's teed up," Predators general manager David Poile says. "Best offense versus the best defense."

There are plenty of shared attributes yoking underdog Nashville, the last seed in the entire playoff field, to Pittsburgh. Both teams employ fiery coaches hailing from suburban Boston: Peter Laviolette (Franklin, Mass.) for the Preds and Mike Sullivan (Marshfield) for the Pens make this the first finals with U.S.-born bench bosses. Both teams possess solid goaltending: Matt Murray backstopped Pittsburgh to the Cup last spring, while Pekka Rinne has led this postseason in save percentage (.941) and goals-against average (1.70) through three rounds. And both teams have lost critical contributors to season-ending surgery: Penguins workhorse defenseman Kris Letang (neck) and Predators No. 1 center Ryan Johansen (thigh).

Yet it is their differences that will define the series. Pittsburgh's incomparable forward corps, led by centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, masks a thin and inexperienced blue line. Nashville's stacked defense, which had combined for 42 points in 16 games entering the finals, makes up for a prosaic attack. It's a skirmish not of style but of substance.

IN BIOLOGY the term mutualistic symbiosis describes two coexisting organisms that both benefit from the relationship. Bees and flowers, for example. Or, in Pittsburgh, Crosby and Malkin. "Sid score, I want to score too," Malkin explains. "Sid score one more, I want to score one more too. Sid score hat trick?" A pause. "I stop."

The crowd howls. It's Stanley Cup media day inside PPG Paints Arena on the eve of Game 1. Though at first he held back his wry sense of humor, the Russian phenom has grown more comfortable with the demands of stardom, parrying reporters' questions and pooh-poohing the idea of Predators fans' hurling catfish onto the ice. "I remember [when] we played against Detroit, we know [the fans would] throw octopus every time," he says. "You sit on bench, the smell, I know [the octopus had been] dead like one month."

Of course Malkin was never reserved on the ice; as in 2009, when he won the Conn Smythe, he can always dial his internal meter to Beast Mode. Take Game 6 against Ottawa. Though the Senators filibustered to a 2--1 win, Malkin generated seven shots on goal, none better than a bam-bam sequence early into the second period. Gathering the puck along the goal line, he tried knifing behind the net but was cut off by forward Zack Smith. Shrugging away Smith's pressure and whirling on his edges, Malkin sharply angled toward the crease before shoveling a wrister that hit Anderson's pads. But in one smooth motion the 6'3", 195-pound center gathered the rebound, swooped to his backhand and slipped the puck inside the right post.

"When that physical dominance happens," Kunitz says, "you [feel] the hair on the back of your neck and start watching him change the dynamic."

To the left of Malkin's dais, an even larger crowd of reporters had gathered in front of Crosby. Between them hung a poster of Mark Messier hoisting the Stanley Cup with the Rangers in 1994. Malkin once heard Wayne Gretzky recall his intense practice battles against Messier in Edmonton. Sounded familiar. "It's good, because they're [competing to see who's] better every day," says Malkin, 30, who could easily be the alpha dog elsewhere. Instead, he says, "I want to play with Sid long time. I don't want to be No. 1 in, like, Carolina or something. But I want to be better [than] Sid."

No doubt Malkin deserves more acclaim than he gets. For a career point-per-game player and former Rookie of the Year with one Hart Trophy, two goal-scoring titles, two Stanley Cups and one playoff MVP, getting snubbed from the NHL's recent list of the top 100 all-time players indeed deserves reevaluation. But eclipsing Crosby? That's a sky-high bar to clear.

Eighteen months ago predictions of a Crosby downturn were being ladled piping hot. But then the Penguins' captain embarked on a rampage for the ages. He won a second Stanley Cup and earned the Conn Smythe, and later added MVP honors at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. He tied for second in scoring this season with 89 points and led the league with 44 goals despite missing seven games, including the first six of the season with a concussion. He sustained another in Game 3 of the second round against Washington but returned for Game 5, and against Ottawa he fed Kunitz for the series-clincher in double OT. Along the way, a consensus recrystallized. "Sid's hands-down the best player of the past 10 to 12 years," says Penguins defenseman Mark Streit.

When asked to recall the last team that wielded such a dangerous one-two punch, Poile says, "When there were six teams? The Original Six?" Upon receiving a gentle reminder about some retired gents from Edmonton, the league's longest-tenured GM quickly recalibrates: "Gretzky and Messier. Yes, that would be it. That's exactly it."

AMID A phalanx of cameras, the rookie reporter elbowed his way to the front of the scrum and confidently stuck the microphone toward the face of Nashville defenseman Ryan Ellis. An hour after Malkin joked his way into the media day spotlight, everyone's attention had shifted—quickly and predictably—to the most charismatic character in hockey. "You're not the biggest guy out there," P.K. Subban said to his fellow blueliner, firing questions like slap shots. "I'd probably put you in [as] one of the best-looking, but you're not the biggest. How do you do it year in and year out?"

Ellis chaffed: "When you get a chance to play with elite players like P.K. Subban, he really does all the work out there. I'm just the guy on the side."

Maybe it feels that way to the Nashville defensemen who skate in Subban's afterglow, but the truth is that none of the Predators' top four can be relegated to supporting roles. They're each averaging at least 23 minutes and have career-high playoff plus-minus ratings. As Kunitz proclaimed shortly after beating Ottawa, Nashville has "four Erik Karlssons," referring to the Senators' superstar defenseman.

"I think six," Malkin corrected. "It's going to be hardest challenge in my life."

When Poile acquired Subban from Montreal for franchise bedrock Shea Weber, the Preds initially projected the 2013 Norris Trophy winner to play with Roman Josi, Weber's former partner. "The obvious [move]," says Laviolette. But injuries during training camp and a slow start to the season forced a reshuffling that worked even better. Pitted against top lines throughout the playoffs, Subban and Mattias Ekholm held Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews to a pair of points during a first-round sweep; Blues winger Vladimir Tarasenko and Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf hardly fared better. Both defensemen excel at evading forecheckers and freelancing in the offensive zone within Laviolette's aggressive system. "P.K.'s a game-breaker, an artist," says Ekholm, a 27-year-old Swede. "He does those really brilliant moves, so you've got to be able to read them before they happen."

Josi has instead skated with Ellis, who rocks a lush ginger beard that would make most leprechauns envious. His 16 regular-season goals ranked third among NHL defensemen, and a seven-game point streak earlier this spring tied a franchise record. Though undersized at 5'10" and 180 pounds, Ellis, 26, is as capable killing penalties (2:25 shorthanded per game) as he is hammering pucks on the power play. "Speed and skill over brawn, if you will," Poile says. "We understood what was happening [in the development of defensemen]. I think we made the right moves at the right times to stay current with what was going to be successful in the league."

That included nabbing Swiss-born Josi 38th in the 2008 NHL draft. Despite an All-Star selection in '15--16 and consecutive fifth-place finishes in Norris Trophy balloting—and even though Team Europe coach Ralph Krueger gushed that Josi was "Nicklas Lidstrom--smart"—fellow Preds blueliner Yannick Weber still feels compelled to call his childhood friend "one of the most underrated D-men in the league."

That label would accurately fit just about any of the Predators' defensemen too. "They really epitomize Nashville—under the radar," one NHL general manager says. "But I think people are finally noticing. All of a sudden, everyone knows Ryan Ellis is good. Well, he was good. Ekholm? Really f------ good. That's their depth.... And I don't think Pittsburgh's seen a defense like these guys."

Perhaps, but neither have the Predators encountered pivots of Crosby and Malkin's caliber this spring, which means the series might boil down to each supporting cast. "It's a hard, long road that you can't travel with just two players," Streit says.

And yet all eyes will be fixed on what happens when Pittsburgh's unstoppable forces up the middle meet the ultra-movable objects on Nashville's blue line. Unlike a dead octopus, this Stanley Cup clash is guaranteed not to stink.