Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Cup Final takes unbelievable shift

By Kevin Gorman
June 6, 2017
Pekka Rinne #35 of the Nashville Predators makes a glove save against Jake Guentzel #59 of the Pittsburgh Penguins during the second period in Game Four of the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the Bridgestone Arena on June 5, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

This is a Stanley Cup Final full of far-fetched storylines.
Who would have believed that Nashville would transform into Smashville, from honky-tonk to hockey town?
Who would have believed the Penguins' success would hinge on the availability of Nick Bonino?
Who would have believed a rookie forward would score the winning goal in Game 3 and the go-ahead goal in Game 4?
Who would have believed the shaky goalie would be Matt Murray or that Pekka Rinne would be spectacular between the pipes?
And, seriously, raise your hand if you truly believed the Penguins would take a 2-0 lead onto the road only to return home after a 4-1 loss Monday with the series tied and all of the momentum belonging to the Predators?
That's the truth.
Start with Smashville: This city has gone all Hee Haw for hockey, and the Predators certainly have a Cinderella appeal after rising from 16th seed of the playoffs to the first Stanley Cup Final appearance since the NHL expansion of 1998.
That has replaced the Penguins' pursuit of becoming the first back-to-back Cup champions since the Detroit Red Wings of 1997 and '98 as the storyline of this series.
Bonino appeared to be done for the remainder of the series when he blocked a P.K. Subban slap shot with his left boot in Game 2 and had to be helped off the ice, even though he returned to play. Bonino has been seen on crutches and in a walking boot, yet practiced and even went through warm-ups before being scratched.
The Penguins clearly miss Bonino, their best checking center and shot-blocking forward who plays on the penalty kill and power play.
If only the Penguins could get the replacement production of a Frederick Gaudreau, who has scored his first three NHL goals in the Cup Final. Gaudreau was called up from the Milwaukee Admirals when Predators top-line center Ryan Johansen was lost to a season-ending leg injury in the Western final.
Gaudreau doesn't even have a stall in the Predators locker room yet scored both the winner in Game 3 and the go-ahead goal in Game 4. He stole the starring role from Sidney Crosby after the Penguins captain tied the score at 1-1 at 15:57 of the first period on a breakaway.
Murray appeared to stop Gaudreau's wraparound with his blocker. The game, however, was stopped to review the shot. A video replay showed the puck crossed the goal line before Murray scooped it out, giving the Predators a 2-1 lead at 3:45 of the second period.
Rinne and Murray have traded places as the shaky goalie of the series. Rinne was spectacular for the second straight game in stopping 23 shots, including 21 straight saves.
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan must work some magic. The power play is 1 for 15 in this series, its only goal coming on a five-on-three. The eight goals are the most Murray has allowed in back-to-back playoff games in his career, and he also allowed three in the Game 1 victory.
Sullivan has stuck with Murray through thick and thin but didn't rule out a return to Marc-Andre Fleury, who was spectacular in the first round against Columbus and the second round against Washington before giving way to Murray in Game 4 at Ottawa.
The Penguins were supposed to be the superior team but, outside of a couple of scoring spurts, have done little to show that they better than the Predators.
Who would have believed that? But it's the truth.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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