Speed was one of the major factors in the Penguins’ 2016 Stanley Cup championship, but that element of their game has been compromised a bit in the 2017 playoffs. The absence of Kris Letang and the disappearance of Carl Hagelin as an influence on games – both through injury and ineffective play that at times rendered him a healthy scratch – are primarily to blame.
But the Penguins’ speed came roaring back as a big difference in their Game 5 demolition of Nashville, and that bodes well for their chances of winning one of the next two games and becoming the first team to win consecutive Cups in the salary cap era.
Look no further than their three first-period goals for an explanation of how their skating ability doomed Nashville, which has some good speed of its own.
To start what may have been the finest Stanley Cup Final game performance of his career, Sidney Crosby burst through defensemen Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis on his first shift of the game, drawing a holding penalty on Ellis that ultimately led to Justin Schultz’s power play goal 41 seconds later. Crosby’s ability to generate short bursts of speed has always been undervalued, and it was good enough on this play to not only draw the penalty but create the space for him to get off a shot that rang off the goalpost before play was whistled.
Fast forward five minutes. A Trevor Daley area pass off the boards toward the Nashville zone found Chris Kunitz, who pulled up on right wing and found Bryan Rust, who simply raced past Predators’ defenseman Matt Irwin before taking a Kunitz pass and sending a backhander past Pekka Rinne for a 2-0 lead. Pushed down the lineup from the top line to the third line, Rust had the acceleration to make the finish possible and started what was a miserable night for Irwin (-3) and partner Yannick Weber (-2) – a Nashville third pairing that was exposed in Game 5.
The Knockout Punch
Then, in the final seconds of the period, Evgeni Malkin delivered what was the decisive blow to Nashville in this game. Malkin threw a pass from right in front of Matt Murray to Phil Kessel in the neutral zone, and Kessel worked one-on-one against Viktor Arvidsson in the left circle. He seemed to be out of options, but Malkin had never stopped skating and blew into the Nashville zone to take a Kessel pass and fire a shot off Weber’s stick and past Rinne.
All three goals, as well as the Penguins’ play in general Thursday night, were also an indication of the determination Pittsburgh brought to this game after being outplayed and outscored, 9-2, in the previous two games in Nashville. But there was no mistaking the fact their speed played a big role not only in producing goals but in creating open ice and helping them get to loose pucks before the Predators.
Why might it continue to influence how the Penguins finish this series? Conor Sheary’s speed begins to become an advantage the minute he leaves his role in the bottom six and joins the Crosby line, where he simply has to use it to keep up. Also, two days off between every game after Game 4 is certainly an advantage for a Pittsburgh team that has played three more playoff games than the Predators to this point.
More rest, fresher legs.
Listen to the PHN Podcast–Dan Kingerski also talks about the Penguins speed game reemerging, responds to the Predators’ President, and bestows high praise upon Sidney Crosby…