A general view of the outside of the Bridgestone Arena prior to the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Finals on June 2, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Getty Images)
NASHVILLE – It takes a lot to throw the Pittsburgh Penguins off their game. They are, after all, the defending Stanley Cup champions. To be sure, it’s going to require more than flying catfish and the odd chant of “It’s all your fault!” if Matt Murray allows a goal or, “If you’re crappy and you know it, ice the puck!” when they send the puck down the ice to get the pressure off.
The Nashville Predators have done an outstanding job of creating a cult atmosphere for games at Bridgestone Arena and the result is a soccer crowd-like ambiance. But rather than be intimidated by the prospect of playing in that bedlam, the Penguins plan to go right into the belly of the beast.
“I think it’s something our guys are excited about,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. “It’s a fun environment. It doesn’t get any better. I think players love to play in buildings that have tons of energy. I know our guys are looking forward to the opportunity. I think we’ve got to embrace it.”
If you’re looking for white noise, there’s an awful lot of it to be found in Nashville. Every other tour bus contains a bachelorette party. (Apparently Nashville is to bachelorette parties what Las Vegas is to bachelor parties in this part of the world.) The entire downtown seems involved in one big Stanley Cup final party and country music star Alan Jackson is slated to perform a concert before Game 3 on Saturday. And Predators defenseman P.K. Subban added to the frenzy by guaranteeing a Predators’ win in Game 3, then doubling and tripling down on his prediction.
“When we’re playing our best, no one can beat us in this league,” Subban said after the Predators practiced Friday. “I’m confident that tomorrow, like I said, we’re going to win and then we’ll move forward from there. With our building and our fans and the city the way it is, we have to bring our best game tomorrow and we all know that in this dressing room.”
Again, though, what else is he going to say? And even if he’s wrong, it’s not as though there will be any recriminations for him. It makes for a great sound bite, but in the end it’s completely inconsequential. Or as Penguins goalie Matt Murray put it: “What happens outside the glass once they drop the puck really should have no impact.”
There is one way the Penguins can turn this to an advantage and that would be to get the crowd out of the game early with a couple of demoralizing, soul-crushing early goals. And that’s entirely possible the way Pekka Rinne has played so far in this series. One way to do that would be for the Penguins to capitalize on the power play. So far in the series it is just 1-for-10 in more than 15 minutes of power play time with the only goal of the series coming on a 5-on-3.
“That probably starts with me maybe winning a few more faceoffs,” said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who won just 10 of 29 draws in Game 2. “I think that would go a long way as far as getting possession. It really comes down to execution. We have guys out there who can make plays and are capable and when there is a mistake, we have to find a way to make a play and get a chance.”
As far as playing in front of a hostile, animated crowd, the Penguins are used to doing that. The crowd at the SAP Center in San Jose last year was deafening during the final and the Penguins managed to win two games there, including the one in which they clinched the Stanley Cup in Game 6.
“This is the best time of the year to play and this is the best environment to play in, when there’s a lot of buzz and a lot of energy in the building,” Sullivan said. “As a player, as a team or as a coach, any of us who are associated with the Stanley Cup final, you can’t help but get excited by the types of environments that these guys are playing in.”
One player who might not get to experience the whole thing is third-line center Nick Bonino, who didn’t practice with the team on Friday and was seen entering the Penguins’ hotel in Nashville in a walking cast. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s definitely not playing, after all, he continued to play the rest of Game 2 after taking a Subban shot to his right foot. Should Bonino not be able to play, the general sentiment is that Carter Rowney would drop to center the fourth line and Carl Hagelin would draw into the lineup.