Welcome, Predators, to the Stanley Cup final, where everything is bizarre and — apparently — the shots don’t matter.
The NHL’s final round opened Monday night with perhaps the strangest game we’ve seen thus far in the 2017 playoffs. Nashville’s defense smothered Pittsburgh for the majority of the game, but that left the Preds with a cold goalie late in the third. Pekka Rinne was tested only 11 times in the entire contest, but still let in four goals. The Penguins won 5–3 over the visiting Predators, but took the fewest shots on goal ever (12) by a winner in a Stanley Cup final game.
While the result wasn’t quite unexpected — because the Penguins are the league’s best finishers — it was strange from a narrative and statistical perspective.
The selling point coming into this series was the matchup between Nashville’s top-four defensemen (Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi, P.K. Subban, and Mattias Ekholm) and Pittsburgh’s attacking core (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Jake Guentzel, and on, and on, into infinity). Whoever won that battle, it was foretold, would take home the Cup. Except, by most metrics, the team that won that matchup Monday night lost the game.
Through the opening 20 minutes, Pittsburgh’s offense was as dominant as expected. After a Subban goal was reversed on a questionable offside review, the Penguins rattled off three straight goals on eight shots and took a 3–0 lead into the first intermission. That third goal, though — credited to Nick Bonino, but more of an own goal off Ekholm — was the last shot on goal the Penguins would manage for the next 37 minutes of gameplay.
In addition to shutting down all opportunities in their own zone, the Predators’ back line used the second and early third periods to open lanes on offense. Just over eight minutes into the second, Ellis recorded Nashville’s first goal in a Stanley Cup final off a feed from Subban on a power play. Then, midway through the third, on another man advantage, Colton Sissons — the Hat Trick Hero from Game 6 of the Western Conference finals — angled a Josi shot off his knee and into the net to cut the deficit to one. By the time Frederick Gaudreau scored his first NHL goal with about six and a half to play in the third, it looked like the Penguins offense was on life support. The game was tied, 3–3, and the momentum was with Nashville.
But, of course, it just took one shot to quiet the rebellion and put the reigning champions back on top.
The rookie Guentzel, Pittsburgh’s leading playoff goal scorer, charged past the blue line after a Nashville turnover and stunned Rinne with a glove-side rocket with 3:17 remaining that won the game.
Rinne was the Conn Smythe favorite heading into Monday night, with a .941 save percentage, 1.70 GAA, and two shutouts (either best or tied for best among goalies with five or more playoff starts). He gave up just three goals in the Preds’ first-round sweep of the top-seeded Blackhawks, out-dueled Hot Playoff Goalie Jake Allen in the second round against the Blues, and recorded 30 or more saves in three games against the Ducks. But he had trouble seeing the puck Monday.
He whiffed on Malkin’s shot in the first, was out of position for Conor Sheary’s goal later in the period (primarily because of a great pass by Chris Kunitz), and was beat by Guentzel on his short side after not seeing a shot for 37 minutes. Rinne faced just 11 shots, his lowest-ever total in a playoff game, and he recorded the second-worst save percentage of his career in any game in which he’s been in net for at least 30 minutes.
It was not Pekka’s night. But despite a subpar game from its playoff MVP and a Game 1 loss, Nashville has reason to be optimistic.
The Preds proved they can come back against the Pens in a hostile environment, and though it’s unlikely Pittsburgh will be held to a dozen shots again, Nashville coach Peter Laviolette figured out how to stifle some of the Penguins’ spark with his defensive matchups. Rinne should bounce back, and if Nashville can earn a split in Pittsburgh, it’ll regain the advantage before going home to some of the rowdiest fans in hockey.
The Penguins stole Game 1, but looked vincible. (Sound familiar?) The Predators were an immovable object for 37 minutes, but are down in the series. Hockey is weird. Game 2 is Wednesday.