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PITTSBURGH—It was then-Ottawa coach Paul MacLean who said a few years ago, “They should rename the game of hockey and call it goalie.” Through two games of the Stanley Cup final the Pittsburgh Penguins have been hanging on, leaning back on the ropes, as George Plimpton once wrote of the rope-a-dope, like a man leaning out his window trying to see something on his roof. It’s not that they don’t throw punches; it’s not that they don’t have knockout power. That, above everything, they have.
So yes, the Nashville Predators have dominated five-on-five, dominated territory. Yes, they have been the better team. But they lost Game 2 by a score of 4-1, and trail the series 2-0, and it was like watching Ali come off the ropes. The Predators now have to win four of the next five games to win the Stanley Cup, and that’s all.
“We don’t lose in our building,” said Nashville defenceman P.K. Subban, who fought Evgeni Malkin in the third period. “So we’re going back home, we’re going to win the next game, and then we’ll see what happens from there.”
Guarantees in sports are ridiculous because nobody can guarantee a damned thing, and besides, it would mean knowing Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne isn’t in the middle of a collapse. In Game 1 he was beaten clean by Malkin on a power play, had no chance on a Conor Sheary goal, sent what should have been an easy rebound into a teammate’s leg for the third goal, and was beaten clean by Jake Guentzel for the winner. Pittsburgh had 11 shots on Rinne, and scored four times.
Well, through two periods of Game 2 Sidney Crosby and Malkin didn’t have a shot on goal, and the Predators were controlling 64.7 per cent of the shot attempts at five-on-five, and the shots Pittsburgh did get were distant, helpless. Matt Murray was keeping them in the game because the second-year goaltender is as steady as they come, and big besides. It was 1-1 because Nashville’s Pontus Aberg scored a beauty, and Guentzel snuck a rebound through a crack in Rinne’s body, between his torso and his arm. But the Predators were in near-complete control. It was absurd.
And then Crosby won the opening faceoff in the third, and Rinne sent a rebound of a Bryan Rust shot out like a pinball flipper and Guentzel buried it. Three minutes later he couldn’t handle a Scott Wilson rebound on a two-on-one that bounced in off teammate Vern Fiddler, off his hoof; and 15 seconds after that Rinne got beat clean by Malkin on a beautiful shot on another two-on-one. The Predators came apart some after allowing that second goal, and Pittsburgh ran them out of the building. Rinne came into the series with a .941 save percentage in the playoffs, and was pulled for backup Juuse Saros.
“I treat this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said the 34-year-old Rinne. “I’ve played a long time, and the first time having a chance to play for the Cup, so I just think you have to bury these two games and move ahead, and just find a way to find some success.” Asked whether his confidence was intact, Rinne said, “Of course, when you lose a couple games and get pulled you’re not happy how things went, but you’ve got to put those things behind and focus on the things you can control.”
He has allowed eight goals on 34 shots in two games; the Predators had 38 shots on goal in Game 2 alone. Given two opportunities to commit to Rinne for Game 3, including one direct question, Nashville coach Peter Laviolette said, “Pekka’s been excellent for us all year long” or a variation, and didn’t say yes. Laviolette is famously secretive, of course, so it might mean nothing.
What doesn’t is that Rinne is the weak spot, and this is how Pittsburgh wins. With No. 1 defenceman Kris Letang gone midway through the season, they finished 14th in shots for and against at five-on-five; going into Game 2 Wednesday night, Pittsburgh had the second-lowest percentage of five-on-five shot attempts of any team in the playoffs at 46.9 per cent, which in the regular season would make them the 29th-ranked team in hockey, and then it got worse. Bad or even average possession teams so rarely win the Cup now: Boston was 14th in 2011 with one of the great goaltending performances in history; Pittsburgh, in 2009, was 19th with Crosby and Malkin. Every other champ since 2008 has been top four.
So you talk to the Penguins, and they sound like Phil Kessel’s 2013 Leafs, who finished last in puck possession and reached the playoffs in that 48-game season.
“Yeah, I think . . . when teams start peppering us, we do a really good job of keeping the shots to the outside, and we limit the quality scoring chances,” said winger Bryan Rust.
“I mean, (analytics are) a part of it now,” said Crosby. “I think it serves a purpose, I don’t know if it tells the whole story, but if you see or evaluate things a certain way, sometimes it can confirm or deny what happened out there. It plays a part, but I’m not probably maybe as big on it as other people.”
In this case, you can see why. This Penguins team has elite offensive talent, and a goalie. Guentzel went eight games without a goal and still leads the playoffs with 12 goals in 21 games; Malkin leads the playoffs with 26 points in 21; Crosby and Kessel are at 22 and 20 in 20 and 21 games, respectively. They are four of the five top scoring players in the playoffs. If this is rope-a-dope they are the knockout power, and it was Crosby’s faceoff win that started the second goal, Kessel who set up the second, Malkin who scored the third. Crosby’s line got caved in all night, and the Penguins won going away anyway.
So the Predators said they could have been better, all of them, and Rinne said his confidence was undamaged, and now they have a mountain to climb. Subban said, “We’re extremely confident in him,” and maybe they are. Goalies go up, and goalies fall. The Predators can continue to dominate this series with their peerless back four and their aggressiveness, and they can get back into this series.
But for Pittsburgh this isn’t Columbus, the victim of a gentleman’s sweep despite outshooting Pittsburgh; this isn’t Washington, which eventually succumbed to its own internal demons in Game 7; it’s not Ottawa, which Pittsburgh solved as the series went on. This is a team that has to play now with the knowledge that if the Penguins get a chance there’s suddenly a hell of a chance it’s going to go in. The Penguins have leaned on the ropes, dodged the punches, and knocked the Predators flat. Now we see whether they get off the mat.