Craig Smith #15 of the Nashville Predators celebrates after scoring a third period goal against Matt Murray #30 of the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Three of the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the Bridgestone Arena on June 3, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE – If the Nashville Predators can pull off the improbable and come back to win the Stanley Cup, they may very well be able to pinpoint the 8:12 mark of the second period as the precise moment in time the tide turned. Because it was exactly at that moment that they got their goalie back.
First, the backstory. The floodgates opened for the Pittsburgh Penguins at the 10-second mark of the third period of Game 2 when Bryan Rust put a shot off Rinne’s pad, with the rebound coming out to Jake Guentzel, who scored to put the Penguins ahead in the game for good. After the game, the Penguins almost bragged about it being a set play, one they work on all the time. Fast-forward three long, agonizing days for Rinne, with his team ahead 2-1 and the Penguins pressing. This time it was Phil Kessel who directed one off Rinne’s pad right to Chris Kunitz, but Rinne was ready for the rebound and robbed Kunitz, prompting defenseman P.K. Subban to get really excited and say a very bad word.
Neither Rinne nor Subban would say exactly what was said. At least Subban didn’t get close enough for Rinne to smell his breath. According to Subban, Sidney Crosby pointed out to him that his carbon dioxide output was offensive.
“Usually when guys chirp after the game or during the game it’s usually about your game or something personal, but he went on to tell me that my breath smelled bad,” Subban said. “I really don’t understand why because I used Listerine before the game, so I thought my breath smelled great.” Rinne, for his part, stepped up for his teammate’s sense of oral hygiene. “He’s a classy guy,” Rinne said of Subban. “He flosses every day.”
The Predators could afford themselves some comic relief after putting some juice back into the series with their play. For the third straight game, they were indisputably the better team on the ice. The differences in Game 3 were that Rinne was much, much better, they had some bounces go their way and coach Peter Laviolette’s lineup changes had the desired effect. It seems that only one goalie at a time in this series can have a good glove hand going. The Penguins repeatedly exploited Rinne high to the glove side in Games 1 and 2, while three of the five of Predators’ goals in Game 3 came on Matt Murray’s glove side.
Chalk that up to a bad game for Murray, who had exhibited an uncanny penchant for rebounding from sub-par performances. Of more importance to the Penguins would be the fact that their three best offensive players – Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel – were rendered impotent. Crosby and Malkin did not have a shot on goal between them, in fact Malkin didn’t even register a single shot attempt. Kessel had three shots, including a meaningless breakaway in the last minute.
A lot of that had to do with the Predators, who claimed in the three days between Games 2 and 3 that all they had to do was clean up some things in their own end and be a little sharper and their fortunes would change. And, boy, were they right. The Predators stymied the Penguins and their formidable transition game at every turn and made a power play with Malkin, Crosby and Kessel look inept. The Penguins couldn’t even get a decent zone entry on their power play, one that has gone 1-for-13 in the series, with the only goal coming on a 5-on-3 situation.
“We have to be better,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. “We’ve got to execute. I don't think we’ve executed as well with what we’re trying to accomplish against the type of penalty kill that we’re up against. So moving forward, we’ve got to find a way to have more success. We’ve got capable people. These guys are real good players. They’ve been good for us here all year long, all playoffs long. I know they’re going to be a difference here for us moving forward.”
They had better be, and the Penguins, who have really played only two good periods in this series, had better start asserting themselves. This has nothing to do with momentum, which might be one of the most overrated factors in playoff hockey. It means nothing. What is far more meaningful is that for large swaths of this series, the Predators have been the better team and sooner or later, that has to become a deciding factor. It may have done so already.
“I don’t think anything really changed for us. We stuck to the game plan,” said Subban, who came through with his guarantee the Predators would win Game 3. “I thought we played a full 60 minutes…Geez, it’s tough, if you’re going to give up odd-man rushes to the defending Stanley Cup champions, they’re going to bury you and they did a good job of that in the first two games. But I thought we did a better job today of making sure we had our F-3 and when we pinched the walls we had support.”
Translation: the Predators were all pulling at the same end of the rope. They were rewarded. Their fan base, which is simply unmatched in zealousness, was rewarded. And now they’re back in the series. This thing is finally getting interesting.