Tuesday, June 06, 2017

With Predators peaking, Penguins left searching for answers in Stanley Cup Final

, USA TODAY Sports
June 6, 2017

Frederick Gaudreau #32 of the Nashville Predators scores a goal against Matt Murray #30 of the Pittsburgh Penguins during the second period in Game Four of the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the Bridgestone Arena on June 5, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

NASHVILLE – Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said from his perspective the first four games of the Stanley Cup Final were all probably closer than the score indicated.

But if you are the Nashville Predators it likely feels as if your team is performing at a higher level than a 2-2 series would suggest.

“You're at a point in the season, when you have to sink or swim, and you have to step up,” Predators coach Peter Laviolette said.

The Predators have stepped up throughout the playoffs, particularly with wins in the past two games. With the Predators’ 4-1 win in Game 4, they have evened the best-of-seven series and turned it into a best-of-three. Game 5 is Thursday in Pittsburgh.

The Penguins are still the defending champions, still have home-ice advantage and still have the world’s best player in Sidney Crosby.

But it’s the Predators who are playing as if they are the team to beat.

"We have to steal one in Pittsburgh," Nashville winger Viktor Arvidsson said.

After looking mediocre in the first two games of the series, goalie Pekka Rinne is again playing like the superhero he was in the first three rounds.

Asked whether the Predators were concerned about Rinne early in the series, Arvidsson said: “No. Never. He’s an unbelievable player. He’s the key to our team.”

The fans’ faith never wavered. Rinne was greeted with a sustained ovation when he came out for warmups in Games 3 and 4.

“I’m sure when you look back (at these playoffs), it's a roller coaster, an emotional ride,” Rinne said.

He made 23 saves in Game 4, and eight or nine of them seemed like prime scoring chances. In the second period, he stoned Jake Guentzel on his doorstep and shut down Chris Kunitz on a breakaway just before Frederick Gaudreau scored on a wrap-around to give Nashville a 2-1 lead.

The Penguins are supposed to be the more dangerous offensive team, but the Predators have now outscored the Penguins 13-11 and outshot them 123-91 in the series. They have outscored Pittsburgh 9-2 over the past six periods. Penguins goalie Matt Murray has given up eight goals over the past two games and has posted a sub.-900 save percentage in three of the four games of this series.

Ryan Johansen’s injured thigh was supposed to be the Predators’ Achilles' heel. Without him for the rest of the playoffs, the Predators were supposed to be at a severe disadvantage at center.

But Predators captain/center Mike Fisher owns four assists in this series — the same number of points as Crosby, who scored in Game 4, and two more than Evgeni Malkin.

“He’s the heartbeat of our team,” Laviolette said.

Laviolette calls him an unbelievable captain. “He lives his life and he lives his hockey life in a manner in which you would want to follow him,” Laviolette said.

It seems to be going Nashville’s way lately. Arvidsson, Calle Jarnkrok and Filip Forsberg, all of whom had been struggling to find the net and hadn't scored in the series, notched goals in Game 4.

Meanwhile, Penguins winger Phil Kessel has gone six games without a goal, and is minus-4 over the past two games.

“I thought (in Game 4), of all the games we played, we generated the most chances and the highest quality of chances,” Sullivan said. “It didn’t go in the net for us. But we had a number of Grade A opportunities, a couple of breakaways.”

He isn't worried. He knows his own team was able to grind out a Stanley Cup championship just a year ago.

“I think we’ve got to stay with it here,” Sullivan said. “We believe in the group. They are a resilient bunch. They’re a resourceful bunch. They understand how to win.”

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