June 9, 2017
Conor Sheary #43 of the Pittsburgh Penguins scores on goaltender Juuse Saros #74 of the Nashville Predators during the second period of Game Five of the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final at PPG Paints Arena on June 8, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennslyvannia. (Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH — And so Thursday night’s thorough de-pantsing by these unbreakable defending Stanley Cup champions, skintight skivvies and all, had landed at this unwelcome sight for the Nashville Predators: 36-year-old defenseman Ron Hainsey, relishing the first postseason of his long career, tapping a backdoor pass for the final goal in Pittsburgh’s 6-0 win and barely raising his arms to celebrate the touchdown.
Why bother? Anything more would’ve only seemed like showboating.
This was hardly the dine-and-dash assault levied by the Penguins in Games 1-2, when they twice blitzed their visitors for three goals in four-minute spans, but something more sustainable, fiercer. This was Sidney Crosby ablaze from the opening shift, splitting two Nashville defensemen to draw a penalty and buzzing the post for good measure, as though sounding the alarm that he had awoken, and then feeding Justin Schultz's one-timer on the ensuing power play. It was Evgeni Malkin predicting that Phil Kessel would bust a slump by scoring, which he did on a second-period wrister, but not before Malkin himself struck 10 seconds prior to intermission and chased goalie Pekka Rinne in the process.
“That was,” coach Mike Sullivan said, “hands down the best game that we've played in this series to this point.”
No objections, your honor. Goalie Matt Murray faced 24 shots but was barely tested, pitching his second shutout of the postseason. Three assists launched Crosby past Mario Lemieux atop the franchise leaderboard for most Stanley Cup Final points (20), none slicker than his backhandeder to linemate Conor Sheary from below the goal line. “You can't really draw that up, when Sid makes that play,” Sheary said.
Bryan Rust #17 of the Pittsburgh Penguins scores past Pekka Rinne #35 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 Justin K. Aller/NHLI via Getty Images)
Heck, even Hainsey posted his first multipoint effort since arriving via trade from Carolina, sparking a breakout by sidestepping two inbound Predators—who, appropriately enough, barreled into each other instead—before Malkin found him at the far post. “We talk before,” Malkin said later, “we team who love [to] score. We score quick, we never stop, we keep going, it’s our game. Sometimes, yeah, it’s tough game, we score one, two goals. But we can [also] score so many, like six, seven.”
The quick-strike mindset has carried Pittsburgh at times throughout these playoffs, helping dispatch Columbus in five, and Washington and Ottawa in seven. The embers began flickering again earlier this week during Game 4’s 4-1 loss—“We felt as though there was a lot to like about that,” Sullivan said—but this was a full-on bonfire that raged into the PPG Paints Arena rafters. Perform like that again in Game 6 on Sunday, and the Penguins will surely become the first repeat champions since Detroit two decades ago. “Still a lot of work to be done,” said Crosby, whose extracurricular activities included accidentally hurling a water bottle onto the ice and repeatedly pressing P.K. Subban's head into it while they tussled behind the Nashville net. “But the way we played tonight, if we can build off that, that’s important.”
Undoubtedly Nashville will find confidence in its 8-1 record at Bridgestone Arena and its combined 9-2 goal differential in Games 3-4, but what then? The winner-take-all, if necessary, would happen here, where Rinne has marshalled the worst road save percentage (.756) of any goalie in Stanley Cup Final history, where Pittsburgh has thus far scored 15 times in 11 periods. (Who’s really counting Thursday’s third frame, which contained 86 penalty minutes and lacked any meaningful action?) No volume of deafening roars or flying catfish carcasses or industrial-sized Listerine bottles can alter the schedule.
Simply, the Penguins have two chances to repeat; the Predators have one shot at stopping them.
“There's a lot of confidence in our group, and we'll move past this,” coach Peter Laviolette said. “But it's difficult just to sit here and say, oh, yeah, it's gone, everything is good. We just lost the game by a big score, so we've got to be better.”
Or, as the eminently quotable Malkin put it, “We have good feeling, and we go to Nashville to win.”