By the time they arrived at the final 15 minutes of Game 2 Wednesday night, the Nashville Predators’ frustration was palpable. They’d just coughed up three goals in 3:18 to fall behind, 4-1, sending Conn Smythe candidate Pekka Rinne to the bench. Pontus Aberg went to the box for slashing Conor Sheary. P.K. Subban engaged Evgeni Malkin in a fight. Cody McLeod was sent off for interfering with Trevor Daley, his second mindless penalty of the night.
The Predators were heading home trailing the series, 2-0, despite playing a lot of good hockey. In Game 1 they had sent the league scrambling for the record books by holding the Penguins without a shot for an incomprehensible 37 minutes and allowing just 12 shots all night. In Game 2 they had an early lead, were on pace to take almost 50 shots and were dominating the Penguins on the penalty kill and in the faceoff circle. All of which had added up to nothing in the bottom-line world that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Now, Game 3 is dead ahead and solutions are needed quickly. The Predators have to be questioning if Rinne can really get it together, and with two even-strength goals in two games, they also have to wonder when Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson and James Neal are going to find the net. But, alas, it’s not all about their failings.
It’s About The Penguins
It’s mostly about the defending champions. The Penguins just find ways to win.
In the first round, Columbus delivered the promised physical play and owned the Penguins in the opening period of every game. Didn’t matter. In the second round, Washington appeared to be wearing down Pittsburgh late in the series only to succumb to a masterful Game 7 performance by the Penguins. Ottawa limited Pittsburgh to three goals in the opening three games of the conference finals and looked to have the quintessential hot goaltender, too, only to lose three of the last four games.
The well-documented emergence of Jake Guentzel as a playoff hero and the absence of Kris Letang are major lineup changes, but otherwise this Pittsburgh team isn’t much different from the one that won the Cup last spring. Ron Hainsey, Carter Rowney and Scott Wilson weren’t around for the 2016 run, and although each has made positive contributions, none has had a major impact on these playoffs – Wilson and Rowney have been healthy scratches along the way. Yet Pittsburgh has had to win games much differently this time around.
Where the Penguins’ speed and puck possession last spring simply overwhelmed opponents, in the 2017 playoffs Pittsburgh has been outshot in 15 of its 21 games. Its speed has been compromised by the loss of Letang and, either through injury or being a healthy scratch, Carl Hagelin. Neither the power play nor the penalty kill are as efficient as they were a year ago. They’ve lost more than twice as many man-games to injury in these playoffs than they lost in 2016.
But no matter how different the challenges, the results have thus far been the same. They’re headed to Game 3 of the Final with a 2-0 lead, just like last spring. That’s a tribute to their depth, their leadership, their coaching and their ability to find a way – any way – to win a game.
One constant has been their spectacular goaltending, whether from Marc-Andre Fleury or Matt Murray. The other has been the Penguins’ ability to score regardless of how many chances they get, as emphasized once more by three first-period goals in the span of 4:11 of Game 1 against Nashville and then the third-period outburst in Game 2. The Penguins converted 8.72 percent of their shots last spring; this spring that number is 10.85 percent.
Malkin and Sidney Crosby are the top two scorers in the 2017 playoffs, as you might expect, and Phil Kessel and Guentzel are right behind them. But in Game 7 against Washington, it was Bryan Rust with a huge goal. In Game 7 against Ottawa, it was an unforgettable night from Chris Kunitz. Matt Cullen has set up goals in each of the past two games. Sheary has points in three straight playoff games for the first time in his career. Nick Bonino had two goals in the Cup Final opener, then contributed a memorable block killing a Nashville five-on-three in Game 2.
Different nights, different lineups, different heroes, different ways of going about it. Same results. Teams become Stanley Cup champions not only through their skill and determination but because they’ve learned how to win. The 2017 Penguins are still taking the final exam right now, but it certainly looks like they’ve mastered the subject.