PITTSBURGH — It was Jan. 6, 2016, when the Nashville Predators took on the look of a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
That was the day the Preds acquired Ryan Johansen from Columbus, giving them that true No. 1 center that every Cup champ seems to have.
It was the one, big piece the Preds had been lacking. To get him, it cost them an excellent, young defenseman in Seth Jones.
Alas, Johansen has now been lost for the playoffs. To their credit, the Preds managed to eliminate Anaheim without him, taking Games 5 and 6 of the Western Conference Final after he was diagnosed with acute compartment syndrome.
But in the franchise’s first ever Stanley Cup Final, the Preds will have to take on the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins, a team with two of the best centers in the game.
Suffice to say, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are tough to handle at full strength, let alone without such an important player as Johansen.
“Certainly you’re talking about a couple good centermen that we have to face,” said Nashville head coach Peter Laviolette. “We had a couple good centermen (Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler) last round that we had to face.”
Preds winger Filip Forsberg didn’t try to sugarcoat the loss of Johansen.
“Obviously he’s one of the best players in the league,” said Forsberg. “It’s tough to play without him. But at the same time, other guys stepped up. I think that’s been the case all year. We’ve been dealing with injuries all year. I don’t know how many players we’ve used, but every player that’s come up has made a huge impact on the team.”
Colton Sissons stepped up big time against the Ducks, notching a hat trick in Game 6. The 23-year-old is expected to center Nashville’s top line, flanked by Forsberg and possibly Pontus Aberg, when the final starts Monday in Pittsburgh.
“It’s exciting, it’s nerve-wracking,” Sissons said. “We lost a lot of offense and a big, heavy, strong centerman in Johansen. There’s gonna be some big shoes for us to fill.”
Sissons has spent most of his professional career in the AHL. With the Preds, he’s mostly been in the bottom six. But his new linemate is a big fan.
“He can do it all,” said Forsberg. “He’s been playing mostly on the third and fourth lines this year, and been playing really well. Solid, two-way player. But we played together in Milwaukee and I saw the offensive upside that he had.”
It’s quite the matchup this series offers. One team without its No. 1 center, but a great group of defensemen. The other team without its No. 1 defenseman, but a pair of elite centers.
“Certainly we’ll miss Ryan,” said Laviolette. “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.”