Friday, June 09, 2017
For the first time in this run, Predators go thud
Joe Rexrode , USA TODAY NETWORK -- Tennessee
June 8, 2017
Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins scores his team's third goal in the first period against Viktor Arvidsson #38 and Yannick Weber #7 of the Nashville Predators in Game Five of the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final at PPG PAINTS Arena on June 8, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH — “Desperation usually wins the day,” coach Peter Laviolette said a few hours before the brand-new biggest game in Predators history, but this was simply domination.
It took 91 seconds for the Pittsburgh Penguins to get on the board and it took 7 minutes for them to go up 2-0 in a Stanley Cup Final Game 5 both teams had to have but only one showed up to play. The Penguins used that start to destroy the Predators 6-0 on Thursday at PPG Paints Arena, take a 3-2 series lead and create an opportunity Sunday in Nashville to win their second straight Stanley Cup.
They deserve all due credit for responding like the championship team they are after losing Games 3 and 4 at Bridgestone Arena by a combined score of 9-2. But the Predators, who have been almost faultless and often overachieving in these playoffs, deserve the opposite.
Maybe this was just one too many “biggest game ever, man” moments in a row? Maybe the mean Pittsburgh fans were too loud? Maybe the pregame meal was too cold or the pregame hallway soccer too intense?
I’m searching here for some kind of excuse for the worst period of hockey the Predators have played in nearly two months of postseason hockey – the period that happened to open the biggest game ever, man. And, man, I just can’t find one.
“It wasn’t good,” Laviolette said afterward. “That’s not the first period we were looking for, and it didn’t get much better after that.”
Somehow, incredibly, the Predators were flat to start. Or at least flat-footed, if that can be a thing in hockey. The Penguins were flying. The results were predictable.
“It wasn’t a good effort,” Predators captain Mike Fisher said.
“We didn’t have it tonight,” Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne said.
“I think they came out the more desperate team right off the bat,” Predators forward Harry Zolnierczyk said. “It was just, we let them run away really quickly at the beginning, and we couldn’t slow them down and get back in it. I think it was just a situation we put ourselves in. … Instead of regrouping right away, we let them find a little more life, and then it was hard to slow it down.”
And now the Predators must again draw on their crowd – in their first elimination game of this postseason – in Sunday’s Game 6 and try to force a Game 7 on Wednesday in Pittsburgh. They might have to do it without defenseman Ryan Ellis, who left with an undisclosed injury.
As ugly as this was and as big as that absence would be, Laviolette’s team isn’t done yet, just as the Predators weren’t done when this series was 2-0 Pittsburgh, just as the Penguins weren’t deterred after going down big twice in Nashville. Rinne isn’t done, either.
“You still remind yourself that you’re in the finals, and as long as there’s life, there’s hope,” he said.
But both subjects will be well worn by Sunday evening because the Predators were terrible and because Rinne has now allowed 11 goals on 45 shots in Pittsburgh’s building in this series. It’s two goals on 52 shots, several of them maximum quality, in two games at Bridgestone.
Rinne gave up three goals in the first period Thursday, the last with 11 seconds left, and Laviolette replaced him with rookie Juuse Saros – whom the Penguins let sit comfortably for 79 seconds of the second period before putting the puck past him.
The fact that Saros didn’t come in and shut things down should help avoid wasted time over the next few days. Laviolette absolutely will and absolutely should go with Rinne for Game 6, same as he did for Game 3.
“Pittsburgh Pekka” is a folk hero at PPG Paints Arena and an alter ego they hope never to see again in Nashville, but Rinne wasn’t as bad as the numbers suggest. His teammates sure were.
“We’ve got to be better for our goaltender, there’s no question,” Fisher said.
Sidney Crosby somehow got free again in the opening seconds, victimizing Ellis and Roman Josi again, and Ellis had to take a penalty. From the Nashville perspective, a costly mental mini-vacation right off the bat. From the Pittsburgh perspective, another glimpse at the greatness of Crosby.
“He’s not taking anything for granted,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said of Crosby, who had three assists. “He’s as driven an athlete as I’ve seen. He’s as hungry a player. He sees the opportunity in front of us.”
The resulting Justin Schultz power-play blast from the point got underneath Rinne with Austin Watson in front of him. Watson was trying to block the shot but blocked his goaltender’s view instead. Tough break and a quick 1-0 lead.
“I mean, guys tried to do everything right. Watty tried to block the shot, and it just came through,” Rinne said. “After that, if you don’t pick it up, it’s too late to react after that.”
Then Bryan Rust scored on a slick backhand move with 6:43 gone, set up by a great Chris Kunitz pass, with Matt Irwin and Yannick Weber caught chasing. Hey, it’s a save Rinne made several times in Game 4. But it was a prime scoring chance.
Evgeni Malkin essentially ended the game with the third goal, which glanced off the stick of Weber and managed to find the perfect spot in the corner of the net, high on Rinne’s glove side. Tough break again.
“I don’t think necessarily they were bad goals,” Laviolette said.
I’m not saying Rinne was good. But the story Thursday was the way the Penguins caved in the guys in front of him. They flew by the Predators and beat them up, taking extra shots when allowed – witness Crosby getting several in on the head of Pittsburgh Enemy No. 1, P.K. Subban.
Both players got holding penalties for that exchange, and Crosby told reporters afterward that Subban had his leg and that he was just trying to get away. Subban had no complaint with the call. Laviolette did.
“I really don’t understand the call,” Laviolette said. “I saw my guy get his head cross-checked into the ice 10 times.”
Crosby might be the only player on either team who does that and gets away with it. There are “star” calls and non-calls in every pro league. At least he showed up and played like a star Thursday.
The Predators barely showed up. The vast difference between these teams in Stanley Cup Final experience might have had something to do with this.
The Penguins were great, and so were their fans, and their confidence would be enormous if a Game 7 has to happen. Authentic desperation from the Predators is the only way it does.
“Our season’s at stake so, I mean, that’s it – the real hockey starts now,” said Subban, who didn’t predict victory for his team as he did before Game 3, but did say the Predators’ collective confidence remains intact.
“Our guys will be ready,” Laviolette said. “That’s all I can tell you.”
Reach Joe Rexrode at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @joerexrode.