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The Existential Dread of the Stanley Cup Final

Pittsburgh has a 2–0 series lead on Nashville despite largely being outplayed, highlighting the simultaneously religious and nihilistic characteristics of playoff hockey

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The Stanley Cup final has a way of making me feel all existential. I can’t just sit on the couch with a wooden spoon, eating Annie’s mac ’n’ cheese directly from the pot, minding my own business, hoping that the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Evgeni Malkin will show off his uniquely oafy ninja moves, or that a coach will snark at Pierre McGuire during a timeout, or that the Nashville Predators’ P.K. Subban will debut a new goal celebration and/or three-piece suit. (This is what playoff hockey is all about!)

Instead, I find myself confronted from all angles with more meditative questions, like Is success measurable and repeatable? or Do we make our own luck? It’s heavy stuff, particularly when I wanted only to make fun of Pittsburgh’s Phil Kessel and browse news about the fine art of transporting vacuum-packed catfish down one’s pants.

Football may be a game of inches, as Coach Tony D’Amato still hollers from Jumbotrons during timeouts, but as Gordon Bombay reminded us, hockey is measured in fractions thereof. Basketball is defined by holding your breath while a crucial shot that will change lives rolls noncommittally around the rim. (Ditto golf!) But it’s exceedingly rare for an off-the-mark shot to collide midair with a defensive player, redirect, and slip cleanly through the net. This stuff happens in hockey all the time, including during Pittsburgh’s 4–1 win in Game 2 on Wednesday night, in the midst of a wild three-minute, 18-second stretch during which Pittsburgh scored back-to-back-to-back goals for the second game in a row while moving to a 2–0 series lead.

Hockey is played on a surface whose very composition might as well be describing the sport itself: fluid, hardened until extra slippery. And in the first two games of the Stanley Cup final, the Penguins have managed to steer into the skid while the Predators find themselves trying to regain their grip. Despite being outshot and, for the most part, outplayed throughout the first two games, the Penguins have devastated the Predators by capitalizing on a limited set of opportunities. Meanwhile, Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne, who entered the postseason with the best Vegas odds to win the Conn Smythe for playoff MVP, has delivered historically bad goaltending in his two Stanley Cup starts.

“Hate the score,” Predators coach Peter Laviolette said twice on the night of Game 1, once while being interviewed by McGuire on the bench during the game, and again afterward, in Laviolette’s press conference. “I thought our guys played well from start to finish,” he said of the Predators, who had battled back from an early 3–0 deficit to tie the game before giving up a heartbreaker and an empty-netter and losing 5–3. Rinne allowed four goals on 11 shots, the worst ratio in a full playoff game by any NHL goalie since 1967. “We played a good game. Hate the score. Hate the result.” It’s not unusual in the NHL for the game and the score to be very different things.

Trying to get to the bottom of how things really work in hockey — what the difference might be between the game and the score — can feel like a religious pilgrimage, but also like an introduction to nihilism. On the one hand, you learn quickly the importance of submitting yourself wholly to the pull of unknowable forces. How else to cope with the Predators outshooting the Penguins 64–39 over two games yet being outscored 9–4? On the other hand, you also learn to believe firmly in nothing. People much smarter than me, people who spend much more time examining game film and running regressions on Excel, routinely come to the conclusion that what happens in hockey doesn’t always neatly add up. Those notable performances that make watching sports so delightful and escapist, those wild and crazy scoring or puck-stopping streaks — sometimes, they occur for no reason at all. That’s just luck is the mathematical answer to an extremely large number of hockey questions, and it’s rarely a satisfying one.

It’s tempting to search for deeper meanings when someone plays well in the postseason, to ascribe narrative import to every big play, to connect the dots between some guy’s pregame smoothie ritual and his game-winning goal. Rinne stopping 97.6 percent of shots in the first round of the playoffs to upset the top-seeded Chicago Blackhawks? What a stunning performance by a guy hitting his stride when it matters most! Rookie Jake Guentzel scoring on 28.6 percent of his attempts to lead all NHL players with 12 playoff goals? Get this kid the Conn Smythe, and then sign him for life! It’s less fun and heartwarming to be the careful skeptic who points out that neither of these percentages is built to last — that they can’t, that they won’t. Reading the tea leaves of hot streaks and mean reversions and league averages can mean coming across as quite the smug Debbie Downer, even if you’re just being honest.

So it’s easy to see why there are plenty of hockey fans who are suspicious of the world of “analytics.” Who wants to haggle over various definitions of what it means to attempt a shot? Who wants to look at dismal Excel charts predicting their team’s certain doom? Who wants to hear hard truths about the fleeting, ephemeral nature of skill and success (and, by extrapolation, of life itself) when they were asking only which color jersey they should buy?

Last season Rinne posted the worst stats of his career, finishing with a .908 save percentage that, according to The Tennessean’s Adam Vingan, was the lowest of the 10 NHL goalies who played in 60 games or more. Rinne was so-so at the World Cup of Hockey last fall, and in his fourth start of this season allowed four goals on 17 shots. At 34, it seemed that his best years were likely behind him. But in the first three rounds of the playoffs, he was newly fantastic, the archetype of the “hot playoff goalie” powering his team. That couldn’t last, and it didn’t.

“They’re an opportunistic team,” Nashville defenseman Ryan Ellis said following the Predators’ Game 2 loss. Through the first two periods, the teams had played to a 1–1 tie. The Predators’ celebrated defense did its job well, halting would-be odd-man rushes and not allowing a single shot on goal from between the face-off dots in the entire second period. (In Game 1, they didn’t allow any Pittsburgh shots for a 37-minute [!] stretch.) The lone Penguins score in Game 2’s first 40 minutes came from Guentzel, as usual. It all seemed relatively normal, even expected.

But then everyone came out of the locker rooms following the second intermission, and Pittsburgh won the face-off at center ice, and then all hell broke loose. Ten seconds into the third period, Guentzel collected a meaty rebound off Rinne’s pad and buried the puck in a wide-open net for a 2–1 lead.

Three minutes later, that seemingly benign tip from Scott Wilson wound up ricocheting off the Predators’ Vernon Fiddler’s skate and, somehow, through the tiny, closing gap between Rinne’s legs, like a mini golf ball barely getting past a windmill blade. And 15 seconds after that, Malkin got the puck on a rare up-the-ice rush, thought about dishing to Kessel, and instead picked a corner, sniped the puck, and put Pittsburgh up 4–1. Rinne was yanked from the game, having allowed eight goals in the first two contests of the finals while posting a save percentage of .778.

Was all of that due to luck? Was it due to skill? Was it because, by being skilled, the Penguins earned that luck? “You have to put it behind you,” a stoic Rinne told reporters afterward. “For me, I treat this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I 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.”

The series resumes Saturday, in Nashville, where the Predators are hoping they can take advantage of a rabid, raucous crowd that will be buoyed by an Alan Jackson concert and a mystery celeb singing the anthem (my money’s on T-Swift) and the excitement of the first Stanley Cup final game ever played in Nashville. The Predators are hoping they can take advantage of anything, really, the way Pittsburgh has done time and again. Maybe it’s because, for the bulk of the Penguins, this isn’t once in a lifetime.

Watching the Penguins coolly capitalize on just about every opening they’re given, watching them use an inch — or a fraction of one — to extend their lead by a mile, it’s easy to think that they just “know how to win,” that they have some ineffable collective “heart of a champion” that beats differently than the rest. But while the Penguins, unlike Laviolette, may like these three-goal binges and love these scores, they can’t be enamored with the majority of these games. Taking 12 shots in 60 minutes is not a winning strategy most of the time. Neither is counting on the opposing goalie to play one of the worst games of his life for four games in a row — even if he may already be halfway there. (Laviolette hasn’t yet committed to a Game 3 starter in net.)

If you looked at the underlying statistics about shots and saves going into this series, you might have correctly predicted that Rinne was poised for a correction. But if you look at them again two games in, there are signs that maybe now it’s the Predators’ turn to get one or two of those lucky bounces, that they’re due for a happier outcome sooner or later. But the NHL season is rapidly coming to an end, and relying on later isn’t really an option. There is only the soon and the now.

After Game 2, Subban asserted that his team would win Saturday. It was a smart move, really, a thoughtful calculation of the odds: Failed predictions by athletes tend to be mostly forgotten, but making good on a guarantee? No one ever forgets that. On Thursday, he reiterated his promise: “I feel even more confident about it now that I had a night of rest,” he told reporters. “There’s no question we are going to win the next game.” Actually, there’s always a quest — sorry, sorry, I almost let that damn inner hockey existentialist back out.