Thursday, June 01, 2017
Predators must avoid repeat to stop Penguins
Joe Rexrode , USA TODAY NETWORK -- Tennessee
May 31, 2017
Jake Guentzel #59 of the Pittsburgh Penguins scores a goal past Pekka Rinne #35 of the Nashville Predators during the first period in Game Two of the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final at PPG Paints Arena on May 31, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH — The sports cliche that carried us into Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final was a trusty one; it was the one about how we were going to “find out about the Predators” as they responded for the first time in this postseason to a series deficit.
I don’t think we did. I think we already knew what the Predators are, and I think they were that for much of Wednesday’s 4-1 loss at PPG Paints Arena — an excellent hockey team, hampered by injury but strengthened by belief, still capable of beating most other hockey teams. Just not the Pittsburgh Penguins, not so far.
It’s the Penguins that are learnin’ us up here. Those of us who don’t watch them closely every day, anyway. The defending champs featuring the game’s best player and tons of other talent, yes, everyone knows that, but the way they’ve won these first two games is why they’re close to ordering new business cards that say “repeat champs.”
And why I have no brilliant suggestions for Predators adjustments entering a must-have Game 3 on Saturday at Bridgestone Arena, other than: Don’t completely lose your grip on everything for a few minutes and destroy all the good work you do in the other minutes.
“There’s no real answer for it,” Predators defenseman Ryan Ellis said, but it happened late in the first period of Monday’s 4-3 loss in Game 1, and then it happened in the first four minutes of the third period of Game 2.
Three Penguins goals — one off a Predators player for the second straight contest — to chase Pekka Rinne with 16:29 left.
“Obviously it’s very disappointing right now,” said Rinne, who has given up eight goals on 36 shots after he was arguably the best NHL player in the first three rounds of the playoffs.
After the eighth, the party was on, no third-period drama or catfish in sight. No interruption of this civic meeting between appropriately rowdy fans and a hockey team well on its way to retaining the Cup. If the best player on the ice Wednesday, Pittsburgh goaltender Matt Murray, keeps playing like this, it’s going to be difficult for the Predators to make a serious run at it.
But don’t be confused by this final score. The Predators are playing well. Other than a few costly mistakes. And other than Rinne. Of course, that’s not the guy you want to be struggling.
Just as in Game 1, two of the four goals Rinne gave up came on shots he has to stop — a tying first-period poke from in front of the net by Jake Guentzel, and the Evgeni Malkin blast on an odd-man rush that chased him.
The tiebreaker 10 seconds into the third period came after Roman Josi lost the puck in the neutral zone, and Rinne gave up a big rebound on a Bryan Rust shot. Guentzel was there again.
“I think that put us on our heels a little bit,” Predators coach Peter Laviolette said.
Vern Fiddler was Nashville’s “own goal” victim this time, his skate sneaking it past Rinne and sending this one sharply into laugher territory. All of which wasted the prettiest Nashville goal of the postseason, a filthy move from Pontus Aberg in the first to beat Olli Maatta and leave Murray alone and helpless.
Sometimes the other team is just better when it counts, and this Penguins team is the best at shrugging off any number of issues and any length of subpar play, and making the winning ones anyway.
It helps to have the great Sidney Crosby, but the Penguins are like the Predators in their ability to elicit help from a wide range of sources. Now the Predators must look to Rinne, who absolutely should be in net for Game 3 and absolutely must be great.
Laviolette was asked twice about Rinne’s status for Game 3 and did not answer directly, but don’t read into that — Laviolette doesn’t and won’t talk about his lineup before a game. He did say Rinne has been “excellent” all postseason and that all three goals in the third period started with defensive mistakes.
“Our mindset doesn’t change with Pekks,” Ellis insisted of Rinne. “He’s our MVP, he’s our best player. He stands on his head every night. It’s not what Pekks is doing wrong, it’s the guys in front of him. And we need to shore up our system and be smarter with what we’re doing out there.”
And they will look forward to what should be an extraordinary scene Saturday — please remember, fans, there is such a thing as too much catfish — and see if they can get a win and change this thing.
“We’re getting ready for the next game, win that one and then we’ll move forward,” said Predators defenseman P.K. Subban, who got into a half fight/half wrestling match with Penguins center Evgeni Malkin late in the game. “I thought we could always play better. We can do a lot of things differently. But both games were decided probably in a span of 3 minutes, so you know, that’s a championship team there. They know how to win. We’ve got to play a full 60. And we will next game.”
They must resist the urge to look back again at Monday’s Game 1, though I will. That’s the one they should have had. A controlling performance, a few lost minutes after a couple bad calls, a couple of mistakes — sound familiar? — that cost them the game. An opportunity you have to grab once you get to this last leg of the chase for a Stanley Cup.
They trailed a series in these playoffs for the first time Monday and they were in trouble in a series for the first time as of late Wednesday night. The Predators can play with the Penguins, absolutely, and they can beat them, but now they must beat them four times in five games.
It’s possible. Anything is possible with these Predators, as the cliche goes, and they have earned the right to have that one said about them. It’s also possible that the Stanley Cup Final, which just got started, is exactly halfway finished.