By coach Peter Laviolette’s math, the Nashville Predators have been pretty good for all but 10 minutes of the Stanley Cup Final.
It’s not much. Unless you’re playing the Pittsburgh Penguins. Then it’s too much. Way too much.
The defending Stanley Cup champions needed just over three minutes at the start of the third period to turn a taut Game 2 into a runaway, beating Pekka Rinne three times in a 4-1 victory on Wednesday night to inch closer to becoming the first team in nearly 20 years to win back-to-back titles.
The barrage started with Jake Guentzel. Mired in an eight-game goal drought heading into the series, the 22-year-old Nebraska-born rookie provided the winner in Game 1 and again in Game 2 when he pounded home a rebound just 10 seconds into the third for his third of the series and 12th of the playoffs.
“It’s crazy,” said Guentzel, who has an NHL rookie record five game-winning goals this postseason. “You can’t even put into words what it feels. But we know the ultimate goal is two more wins, and they’re going to be tough to get.”
Only if Rinne turns back into Rinne. The 34-year-old spent the first three rounds of the playoffs helping carry Nashville to the Final for the first time. Now he’s the biggest reason the Predators head back to “Smashville” for Game 3 on Saturday night reeling. After giving up four goals on 11 shots in Game 1, he allowed four more on 25 shots in Game 2. He was pulled when Evgeni Malkin ended Pittsburgh’s surge with his ninth of the playoffs 3:28 into the third.
Rinne entered the series with a .947 save percentage in the postseason. Against Pittsburgh, it’s at .777, and he remains winless in his career against the Penguins in games he’s started.
“The limited chances they’ve had they’ve done a good job,” Rinne said. “Overall these two games, like I said, it’s disappointing to be down 2-0 but we have to be feeling still positive with the way we played as a whole and creating chances.”
Asked twice afterward if he was committed to starting Rinne on Saturday, Laviolette stressed Rinne has been “terrific,” adding there are plenty of things the Predators can do better in front of him like stopping the odd-man rushes that allowed the Penguins to take charge.
“There’s a stretch they’re able to gain some momentum, able to capitalize and be opportunistic and that swung two games in their favor,” he said.
Pontus Aberg scored the lone goal for the Predators, who were once again undone by a sudden barrage from the NHL’s highest-scoring team, though they haven’t lost faith in Rinne. Defenseman P.K. Subban said the team was “extremely confident” and in the prospect of going home, where the Predators are 7-1 during the playoffs.
“We’re going to win the next game, and then we’ll see what happens from there,” Subban said.
It wouldn’t take much to be better than what happened in Pittsburgh.
In Game 1, the Penguins pushed three goals by Rinne in a span of 4:11 in the first period to build a 3-0 lead. The Predators rallied to tie before Guentzel’s go-ahead goal with 3:17 remaining put the Penguins ahead to stay.
This time, Pittsburgh’s flurry came a little bit later. And it was once again led by the baby-faced son of a coach who has no problem shouldering the responsibility of playing alongside star Sidney Crosby.
The game was tied at 1 at the start of the third period when Guentzel jumped on a rebound to put Pittsburgh ahead. It was 1 second shy of the fastest goal to start a period in Final history.
Wilson was credited with his third of the playoffs just over 3 minutes later when a centering pass caromed off Nashville’s Vernon Fiddler and by Rinne. Malkin’s shot sent Rinne to the bench in favor of backup Juuse Saros, who made his playoff debut.
“When we score one, we don’t stop,” Malkin said. “We want to score more. The first shift in the third period, we score. We want more. It’s our game. Never stop.”
Pittsburgh vowed to put more pressure on Rinne than it managed in their 5-3 victory in Game 1, a win they managed despite going 37 minutes without throwing a single puck Rinne’s way and none in the second period, the first time that’s happened since the NHL started tracking shots in 1957.
The Penguins matched their entire shot total from the opener (12) by the end of the first period but still found themselves trying to keep up with the Predators. The Stanley Cup newbies were disappointed but not dismayed by their Game 1 loss, pointing to the way they carried play for long stretches as tangible proof they weren’t just happy to be here.
The result was the kind of up-and-down play that showcased the speed on both sides and included more than a dash of antagonism, particularly early.
Nashville’s Matt Irwin drilled Pittsburgh’s Matt Cullen from behind into the boards in the first period, a hit that left the 40-year-old Cullen headed down the runway for a quick check but didn’t result in a penalty. Minutes later, Penguins forward Chris Kunitz became tangled up with P.K. Subban and ended up cross-checking Subban in the head, part of a sequence that saw Malkin go off for hooking. Malkin and Subban even ended up fighting in the third period when things got out of hand.
It was a scene hard to imagine through the first two taut and chippy periods.
Pittsburgh stayed in it thanks to Matt Murray (37 saves) and when Pittsburgh returned to the ice for the start of the third they, as coach Mike Sullivan is fond of saying, “got to their game.”
A style that now has the Penguins two victories away from the cusp of a dynasty.