The Stanley Cup Final between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Nashville Predators has been an odd one. That’s for sure…
Game One: Shots & Nots
In just two games, we have seen a lopsided margin in shots, but not from the team with the most goals. Heroes have emerged from the unlikeliest of places and workhorses that have been resilient in the playoffs have begun to show fatigue. For the Nashville Predators, they have played some of their best hockey in the 2016-17 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs, but find themselves quickly down two games. The series started off with a bang as Evgeni Malkin (9G, 17A) drew first blood with the opening goal in Game 1. Little did he know that this score would quickly open the flood gates for Pittsburgh as Conor Sheary (1G, 5A) and Nick Bonino (4G, 3A) followed up with goals to give the Penguins a 3-0 lead at the end of the first period.
Knocked on their backs, Nashville picked themselves up and responded with a plethora of shots, completely deleting Pittsburgh’s offensive prowess in the process. Their comeback was deemed complete with a resounding first career goal from center Frederick Gaudreau (1G, 0A) at the halfway mark in the third. In an act of sheer dominance, the Predators had forced their way back into the game and were on the verge of victory.
That was until they ran into the force that is the league’s playoff goal-scoring leader, Jake Guentzel (12G, 7A). Guentzel ripped a wicked wrist shot past Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinna (12W, 1.98 GAA, .916 Sv%) for his tenth goal of the post-season. With an empty net goal, the Penguins twisted the dagger into the Predators’ hopes of victory by winning 5-3 and taking a 1-0 series lead. The final shot total would feature Nashville with 26 shots and Pittsburgh with just 12. One big moment was a disallowed goal by P.K. Subban that could have greatly changed the outcome of this one. This instance just proves hockey the game of hockey is one of inches.
Game Two: Rinse & Repeat
A night removed from The Horror In Pittsburgh, Nashville returned to the PPG Paints Arena aimed to make the finals a best-of-five series. The puck was dropped and the Predators resumed their elevated play of hockey. They were rewarded with the game’s opening tally, as forward Pontus Aberg scored at the 12:57 mark of the first. That celebration would be short-lived, however as Guentzel did what he’s done best in the post-season and tied it up. The Predators’ did not give in so easily, however, weathering the Penguins’ momentum all the way until the third period.
The final frame of Game 2 was the product of defensive blunders, the explosiveness that Pittsburgh possesses, and a tame Rinne. It took just three minutes for the Penguins to blow the doors off this one. Led by another Guentzel goal, Pittsburgh annihilated the Nashville hopes with two more quick goals which saw this once promising game become an ugly 4-1 tilt. The Predators, facing their second triple goal barrage in as many games, could only watch helpless as Pittsburgh goaltender Matt Murray (5W, 1.54 GAA, .943 Sv%) smothered any attempt they had at making it even. Murray would end the contest making 37 saves out of 38 shots.
Through The Looking Glass
With a 2-0 lead heading into Saturday’s Game 3, the Penguins have their eyes on their second consecutive Stanley Cup. They would also be the first team to win back-to-back championships since Detroit in 1997 and 1998. The Predators, however, are not out of it yet. With their backs in the corner, this is an absolute must-win for the Stanley Cup Final rookies. They have dominated several stretches of the series and would only suffer if they let frustration consume them.
Their problem lies with their protection of Rinne who, after being such a stud during the playoffs, has looked weak.
He was pulled during Game 2 after surrendering four goals, so his confidence appears low. Luckily for the Predators, he is a veteran and knows how to bounce back. For him to do this though, he’ll need the support of his team who should play more of a structured defensive style than their traditional man to man focused coverage.
The Nashville offense has put the pressure on Pittsburgh’s Murray, averaging 32 shots a game. In this point in the series, they’ll need to keep this up and hope that eventually Murray falls back to Earth. The Predators also need to play with more discipline as giving away so many chances will prove costly. Nashville was tagged with seven penalties during Game 2.
What I see happening in the future of this series is Nashville’s onslaught eventually breaking through, but they’ll need the brilliance of Rinne to return if they have any chance of a comeback. For Pittsburgh, they’ll need to improve their game because eventually their luck will run dry, but the Penguins have earned their spot in the finals and can easily close out this series. They have more than enough talent to make me eat those words. Regardless, this series is far from over and should offer exciting hockey throughout.