The team that took the ice on Saturday night at Bridgestone Arena sporting black and gold uniforms wasn’t Mike Sullivan’s Pittsburgh Penguins. His Penguins are a resilient group, an unflappable team that laughs in the face of adversity. They use the opposing fans’ energy as fuel and no matter what’s laid out in front of them, they ‘just play’.
That mantra — adopted when Sullivan took over a damaged team from previous head coach Mike Johnston — is being tested by the Nashville Predators in unparalleled fashion. And there’s video evidence that it just might be working.
(Courtesy, Twitter User @WillRBrown93)
Would Evgeni Malkin actually hit a fan with his stick? Of course not. But this is out of character for this group — even Malkin, who’s arguably the hardest individual to reel in when he loses control of his emotions — and it’s exactly what the Predators and their fans hope to accomplish during Pittsburgh’s stay in Nashville. It’s an old formula that worked very well against the Penguins of old but lately, under Sullivan’s tutelage, we’ve watched as numerous teams fail miserably while employing this approach.
The Predators, though, have a familiar face behind the bench that excelled at flustering the Penguins’ stars for many years.
April 2012, head coach Peter Laviolette and the Philadelphia Flyers would face the Penguins in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. They’d eventually eliminate the Penguins in six games but it was the circus which played out on the ice that made the most news. The Penguins were Cup favorites but suffered a monumental collapse, as the Flyers were able to bait them into bad penalties that eventually led to multiple suspensions and a fine for head coach Dan Bylsma. The entire series was chaos and the highly skilled Penguins suffered the consequences of being roped into a garbage brand of hockey.
Laviolette would love to see the same result from behind the Nashville bench.
Peter Laviolette just said his favorite Nashville crowd cheer is when they say “sucks” after the opponent introductions.
— Sam Werner (@sjwerner11) June 4, 2017
Throughout the first three games of this series, we’ve witnessed a ton of stick work by the Predators. If there’s been an opportunity to get an extra shot in on a Pittsburgh skater, they’ve taken it. And it’s hard to blame them, considering the league doesn’t address it — despite knowing it’s an issue. We’ve seen Malkin engage with P.K. Subban in a fight (if you can call it that), while also seeing Subban in the face of Sidney Crosby quite often and ensuring it garners plenty of attention in the media. Enough to make sure Crosby has to discuss it afterward, at least. That’s the last thing Crosby wants to talk about.
Combined with Nashville forwards finding ways to initiate contact with Matt Murray, it’s a recipe for very frustrating hockey.
Nashville isn’t on the same level as the 2012 Flyers. However, if there was ever a time that a group could get under the skin of this unflappable Penguins team, it’s now. They’ve been vocal about their frustrations with officiating and for three and a half series, they’ve been beaten and bruised. They’re getting dominated in play for large chunks of time and it’s possible they’ve recently met the Pekka Rinne that was in Conn Smythe conversations prior to Games 1 and 2. For some, two more wins in this series feels like a monumental task after the 5-1 drubbing they received on Saturday night.
Of course, until proven otherwise, there’s little reason to believe Sullivan and company won’t rise to the occasion.
Short Term Memory for the Pittsburgh Penguins
There’s plenty to fix as the Penguins prepare for a pivotal Game 4 on Monday night. If they win, they apply a 3-1 series chokehold heading back to PPG Paints Arena for Game 5 and a chance to finally hoist the Stanley Cup on home ice. But if they lose, it becomes a best of three. The Predators are also very resilient, and they’re the last team Pittsburgh wants to provide a glimmer of hope. That’s why it’s so important to reset after Saturday night, leave those frustrations behind and find their game early.
Murray is 7-0 after a loss in postseason play, dating back to last season’s Cup run. The Penguins will need his calm, cool demeanor in a Game 4 that will change the face of this series. They’ll also need more from another trusted playoff performer who, despite his points-per-game average, hasn’t been the player Pittsburgh needs him to be. Phil Kessel spent a lot of time with assistant coach Rick Tocchet at Sunday’s optional skate, with Tocchet pushing Phil to regain his shoot-first mentality. He’s a crucial piece of a failing powerplay and his even strength production has left a lot to be desired recently.
It’s time for him to help push the Penguins to hockey’s ultimate prize, just as he did last season. We all know he’s capable of more.
If the Penguins can let Subban and the rest of Nashville do the talking while simply playing their game, they’re the better team. They’ve worked on the powerplay in recent days — a group that has gone 1-for-15 through three games — and even made a few personnel changes during practice. It’s hard to imagine another disappointing outing like Game 3, so my prediction of Penguins in five still stands. But fans of either side should brace themselves, as Monday night will be quite the spectacle and very well could put the series out of reach for the Predators.