After two periods of Game 2 on Wednesday night, the Predators should’ve felt confident about their chances of evening their Stanley Cup final series against Pittsburgh. The score was tied 1–1, but Nashville led Pittsburgh 32–19 in shots and 19–6 in scoring chances, and this was the shots-allowed-on-goal chart in the Predators defensive zone:
For the first 40 minutes, P.K. Subban and the Predators back line swarmed the middle of their defensive zone, pushing and prodding Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin around the ice while keeping them pointless. In terms of overall balance of play, it felt similar to Game 1 (plus a lot more Penguin shots), which was both optimistic and ominous for Nashville. In that game, the Predators seized momentum until the reigning champs snatched it away late.
In the third period of Game 2, the Preds’ hope turned into dread in an instant — or, to be precise, in 10 seconds, which is how long it took Penguins rookie Jake Guentzel to score the go-ahead goal. After Pekka Rinne bounced a wild rebound off a Bryan Rust shot into the center of the ice, Guentzel finished into a gaping net to put Pittsburgh up 2–1.
Then, just over three minutes later, the Predators had their second own-goal in as many games, when Vernon Fiddler’s skate knocked a bouncing puck through Rinne’s five-hole — the goal officially goes to Scott Wilson, but equal credit should go to Phil Kessel, who earned the assist for sneaking the puck into a dangerous position. Malkin redeemed his slow opening periods by scoring on a wicked wrister 15 seconds later, and the game cracked open. Rinne was chased from the Nashville net, and Pittsburgh took Game 2 by a 4–1 final. (With tensions high and the Predators frustrated after going down three goals, Malkin and Subban channeled some of their adrenaline into a fight-slash-hugging contest. Though the bout itself was pretty tame, the two teams are definitely starting to get to each other — Subban has already vowed that the Preds will win Game 3 at home, and that he will be shadowing Crosby the entire time.)
Pittsburgh’s offense is lethal, and though it can go dormant (see: 37 minutes without a shot on goal in Game 1), the Pens’ rapid-fire goals can strike at any moment — often one soon after another. In Game 1 against Washington in the second round, Crosby scored 12 seconds into the second period, and again 52 seconds later to give Pittsburgh a 2–0 lead (they won 3–2). In Game 1 against Nashville, Malkin, Conor Sheary, and Nick Bonino scored in just over four minutes in the first period to put the Penguins up 3–0 — they’d go on to win 5–3.
Pittsburgh’s tandem scoring is by now a trademark. The Penguins thrive off of high-intensity, chaotic situations that turn broken plays into instant odd-man rushes. The Pens read each other well, and are loaded with playmakers and finishers. They’re like a boxer with a lethally quick combination: jab, hook, uppercut — KO.
No one has finished better for the Penguins in the playoffs than Guentzel. The 22-year-old former stick boy for Kessel has stunned the league and forcefully inserted himself into this year’s Conn Smythe conversation. After recording the game-winner in Monday’s series opener, Guentzel scored Pittsburgh’s first two goals on Wednesday night, giving him an NHL-leading five game-winning playoff goals and 19 points in the postseason, the most of any American-born rookie in NHL history. It’s Guentzel’s sense around the net that stands out — despite his 5-foot-11 size, he has the grit to match the finesse that makes him a threat from anywhere in the offensive zone.
It was easy for Guentzel to be overlooked during the regular season on a team full of superstars, elite scorers, and Stanley Cup champions. Plus, with Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, William Nylander, and Patrik Laine in the league, there didn’t seem to be room for another Great Young Phenom. But while those other young guys have fallen away in the postseason (or didn’t make the postseason at all), Guentzel has become one of the most important players in the Stanley Cup final. And he certainly won’t be overlooked in Nashville for Game 3 on Saturday.