June 1, 2017
Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins reacts after scoring a goal during the third period in Game Two of the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final against the Nashville Predators at PPG Paints Arena on May 31, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH — Pekka Rinne closed his eyes and went back to a happy place.
It was the morning of Game 2, but the Nashville Predators goalie was somewhere else entirely. He had gone to a place where he had made the big saves, where he had picked up the big win, where he was once again the best goalie in the playoffs.
A lot of goaltending is played between the ears. And after Rinne had allowed four goals on 11 shots in Game 1, he wanted to feel good about his game again.
“Obviously, it’s a mental thing,” said Rinne, who entered the Stanley Cup final with a 1.70 goals-against average and a .941 save percentage. “You look back to good games and make yourself feel good.”
After the Pittsburgh Penguins chased him from the net in a 4-1 win on Wednesday night, he might want to get back to that happy place again. At the very least, he needs to go to a place where Jake Guentzel doesn’t exist.
“Obviously, it’s very disappointing right now,” said Rinne. “We have to put it behind you. For me, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. I waited a long time and it’s my first time having a chance to play for the Cup. You just have to bury these two games and find a way to have some success.”
Rinne, who had previously not lost two in a row in these playoffs, allowed four goals on 25 shots. That was more than he allowed in the entire first-round series against the Blackhawks.
But Pittsburgh is not Chicago. And this is not the same Rinne. The goalie who had been so dominant in the playoffs has now given up eight goals on 36 shots and has a .777 save percentage in the Stanley Cup final.
As a result, a Predators team that once again played well enough to win is once again shaking its heads after being down 2-0 in the best-of-seven series that is slipping from its grasp.
“When you lose a couple of games and get pulled, you’re obviously not happy with how things went,” said Rinne, who was last pulled on Feb. 21. “But you have to put those things behind you and focus on what you can control. For me, that’s Game 3.”
Game 3 is in Nashville on Saturday. And while the Predators desperately need Rinne to rebound and return to form, they also need a way to keep Guentzel, who has three goals in the series, off the scoresheet.
One thing is for sure: a new favourite has emerged for the Conn Smythe Trophy.
Jake Guentzel #59 of the Pittsburgh Penguins scores his first period goal past Pekka Rinne #35 of the Nashville Predators in Game Two of the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final at PPG Paints Arena on May 31, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/NHLI via Getty Images)
“We’re not looking at anybody,” said Nashville defenceman P.K. Subban, when asked about Rinne’s performance. “We’re looking at ourselves. Right now, the focus shifts to we don’t lose in our building. So we’re going back home and we’re going to win the next game and we’ll see what happens after there.”
This game was closer to what we had expected out of these two uptempo teams. For one, they actually put pucks on the net.
In Game 1, the Penguins had gone 37 minutes — including the entire second period — without a shot. In Game 2, they had as many shots in the first period (12) as they did total in the previous game.
Still, it was Nashville striking first on a gorgeous individual effort from rookie Pontus Aberg. Skating one-on-one against Olli Maatta, the Predators rookie turned Maatta inside out on a deke and then cut towards the net and went upstairs on goalie Matt Murray.
Murray, who had the crowd chanting his name after stretching out to rob Filip Forsberg of a surefire goal, redeemed himself as the game wore on. At the other end, Rinne looked like he couldn’t wait for the period to end.
With less than four minutes remaining in the first, Game 1 hero Guentzel tied things up when he followed up a Conor Sheary rebound and snuck a backhand through Rinne’s equipment. After going the entire third round without scoring, the Penguins rookie has found his touch again.
Still, it was a goal that Rinne should have had. With the way Murray has been playing, it was a goal Rinne needed to have.
What made Rinne’s performance so deflating is that Nashville had been driving possession for most of Game 2 and might have actually been the better team. The Predators outshot the Penguins 18-12 in the first and 14-7 in the second. But the Penguins, who had needed just 12 shots to score five goals in Game 1, continued to be opportunistic.
A mere 10 seconds into the third period, Bryan Rust fired a long-range shot that bounced off Rinne and onto Guentzel’s stick for the game-winner. Sensing their opponent was on the ropes and bleeding, the Penguins scored twice more in 15 seconds to chase Rinne from the net.
“It’s not the situation we wanted coming here,” said Rinne. “But it’s a (seven-game) series. Being down 2-0 coming home in front of our fans, we feel pretty good.”