Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates with Trevor Daley #6 after scoring a goal during the first period in Game One of the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final against the Nashville Predators at PPG Paints Arena on May 29, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH – If the mark of a true champion is being able to turn in a sub-par effort and still get a positive result, the NHL’s engraver might want to start working on his spelling of Guentzel immediately.
Hall of Fame pitchers have a unique ability to sometimes pull victories out of games in which they’re throwing nothing but junk across the plate. Great quarterbacks can have a bad day and win the game with two magnificent drives in the fourth quarter. Teams with a championship pedigree can play an absolutely dreadful game, go exactly 37 minutes without recording a shot on goal, and pretty much just rely on their pure talent to save them.
And that’s pretty much why the Pittsburgh Penguins will wake up Tuesday morning feeling as though they just dreamed they had won Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final. But they’ll give their heads a shake and realize it’s all real. They’ll take stock of Game 1 and remember that they benefitted from a called-back goal that turned the tide of the game, they scored on a 5-on-3 in the Stanley Cup final – like that happens every day – and they were complicit in one of the best goalies on the planet posting a save percentage of .636.
“We weren’t very good,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. Then he went on to say, “none of us in our dressing room are fooled by the score tonight.”
Weirdest. Game. Ever. The Penguins scored with 17 seconds remaining in the first period on a goal that came when Rinne directed a rebound off Predators defenseman Mattias Ekholm, then went 37 minutes without another shot before Jake Guentzel, who hadn’t scored himself in nine games, drilled the dagger into the Predators with 3:37 remaining in the game. Nick Bonino scored two goals in the game, neither of which actually came with him shooting a puck on a goaltender.
So there’s one of two ways you can feel if you’re the Penguins. The first would be deeply concerned. They were running on fumes by the end of the Eastern Conference final against the Ottawa Senators – albeit very, very powerful fumes – and they turned in an effort in Game 1 that will likely see them get steamrolled in this series if they continue to play this way. After facing a passive checking team in the Senators, the Penguins looked flummoxed trying to crack the Predators, who left no gaps and were on them every time they touched the puck. The second would be encouraged, knowing you are ahead in a series despite being ridiculously outplayed.
“I didn’t think we were stiff enough in the battle areas,” Sullivan said. “When we’re defending we’ve got to get into people’s bodies, we’ve got to hit and stick and stay engaged. It seemed like we were coming off checks and giving them time and space with a little bit of separation. If we played a little stiffer, we could create separation from the puck and give our guys an opportunity to win a puck battle.”
That’s hockey speak for the Penguins simply have to try harder and be more detail oriented. So much of their game is winning 50-50 battles based on their speed, but you have to create the 50-50 battle in the first place. And you do that by being hungrier for the puck and being more dogged in the pursuit of it.
The Penguins will be better in Game 2, for no other reason than they can’t possibly be any worse. You look at the two teams’ four forward lines and the disparity in overall talent between the Penguins and Predators borders on ridiculous. Then you turn to the defense pairings and the disparity in overall talent between the Predators and Penguins is just as ridiculous. The players the Penguins dressed for Game 1 own a combined 22 Stanley Cup rings. The players the Predators dressed have a combined total of zero, with only captain Mike Fisher even having the experience of playing in a Stanley Cup final.
Clearly, experience matters. It did in Game 1 and now the Penguins will have to call on that experience to summon a better effort in Game 2.
“As a group tonight, we weren’t as good as I think our own expectations are,” Sullivan said. “I think all of our players are very good at self-assessing. So it’s an opportunity for us to learn from it, move by it, make sure we respond the right way.”