On the surface, this year’s Stanley Cup final looks like a doozy. No team has lost at home yet, thrilling the folks in their loud, gold-and-yellow-filled (and surrounded) arenas. There are star-level players out on the ice doing star-level things, from P.K. Subban’s “guaranteed” Game 3 victory to Evgeni Malkin’s three goals in the series. The Predators are outshooting the Penguins over five games by a margin of 147–115, but the Penguins have the edge on actual goals, netting 17 to Nashville’s 13. It has the surface optics of a classic.
In addition, there has been an increasingly satisfying level of angry absurdity — the X factor that always ties the Stanley Cup final together — that in this case began with bad breath and ramped up with accusations of pumped-in crowd noise (that one was a particular favorite of mine, because it led to the angry Predators CEO using the word “schmuck” in a radio interview) and now has reached hurled-water-bottle and repeated-face-slamming levels of intensity.
And yet, with Game 6 scheduled for Sunday and the Penguins holding a 3–2 series lead, what a weird one it’s been, right? Zero of the games have been decided by a one-goal margin (Game 1 did come close, but an empty netter made it 5–3). The home teams haven’t just been winning, they’ve been bingeing and feasting and running up the score. In Thursday night’s Game 5, the Penguins delivered a 6–0 shellacking of the Predators that thoroughly demoralized two Nashville goalies (and some defensemen) in one fell swoop. This series could easily go seven games, and yet it has rarely felt very close. The hockey gods must be crazy.
“We team who love score,” said the hulking Malkin, in his distinctive Russian style, after Game 5, in which he scored a goal and added an assist. “We score quick, we never stop, we keep going, it’s our game. Sometimes, yeah, it’s tough game — we score one, two goals. But we can score so many, like six, seven.”
That’s the streaky binary that the series has been operating on; each team has had its tough games, and its score-quick-never-stop-keep-going ones. Game 1 involved Pittsburgh taking a quick 3–0 lead before Nashville had three unanswered scores of its own. The Penguins poured on another three straight in the third period of Game 2. In Nashville, the Predators won Games 3 and 4 by a combined 9–2 score. For a series so driven by in-game momentum, neither team has been able to sustain it for long.
Part of the reason for this has been a particularly extreme home-ice advantage. It’s not even necessarily about the fans — although it never hurts to have tens of thousands of screaming, ecstatic degenerates on your side — but about the logistics of the “last change,” which takes on increased importance during the tactical battle of playoff, and particularly Stanley Cup final, hockey.
Whenever there’s a stoppage in play, the home team gets to, essentially, see which cards the visitor is playing before having to show its own hand. Which is how, on Thursday, poor, overmatched Nashville defenseman Matt Irwin was on the ice for three of Pittsburgh’s six goals. (His partner, Yannick Weber, was on for two.) “They need to be great,” one Nashville broadcaster wrote before the game, anticipating that Pittsburgh head coach Mike Sullivan would be trying to get Crosby’s line on the ice whenever he saw Irwin and Weber lining up. Despite the good karma that ought to have accumulated for Irwin after a recent good deed, they … were not great.
Nor was goaltender Pekka Rinne, who came into the series as the Conn Smythe front-runner for playoff MVP, finished the first two games with a dismal .778 save percentage and then somewhat redeemed himself with 50 saves between Games 3 and 4. He was pulled after one period in Game 5, with the Penguins up 3–0, after a five-holer from Justin Schultz, a gorgeous shoveling-snow backhand from Bryan Rust that flew over Rinne’s shoulder, and Malkin’s absolute dagger of a goal with just 11 seconds left before intermission.
Malkin’s goal came during a four-on-four, and was set up by Phil Kessel, who toyed with Viktor Arvidsson like a cat torturing a mouse as everyone on the ice besides Malkin pretty much stopped and stared. The four-on-four was the result of a scuffle between stars Subban and Crosby just over a minute earlier that began with a lil crosscheck and turned into a mixed-martial-arts scrum. Crosby did his best to strangle Subban via the strap of his helmet; Subban, according to Crosby, “was doing some UFC move on my foot.” (When the pair finally stood up, Subban held off on serving Crosby with a DDT.)
After the game, both All-Stars — who had begun to trade words and jabs after Game 3, when Subban said Crosby had made fun of his bad breath and Crosby countered that Subban liked to make stuff up — downplayed the incident as just two guys doing their jobs. The skirmish led to the players receiving matching minors, much to the chagrin of those, like Nashville head coach Peter Laviolette, who thought maybe Crosby deserved more time in the box. After Malkin scored, Laviolette informed an official of his role in the play.
With backup goalie Juuse Saros in net for the Predators to start the second period, things went from bad to worse: Pittsburgh’s Conor Sheary, on his 25th birthday, converted a perfect backhand pass from Crosby for a 4–0 lead; Kessel finally busted his slump, per the pregame prediction of Malkin; even journeyman Ron Hainsey, better known for having a last name impervious to hockey-nicknaming than for his actual play over the years, got involved. (Adding insult to injury: a bizarre moment in which Crosby threw a water bottle from the bench, then proceeded to babble to anyone who would listen — refs, teammates, and later the media — that he seriously didn’t mean to, honest!)
And so now the two teams go back to Nashville to write the latest chapter in a series that is trying hard to be wonderful but has so far just been kinda weird. Until Game 5, the Predators had outplayed the Penguins even in their losses, but what had once been a positive motivating factor for Nashville now threatens to be a frustrating what-if. The Penguins are rarely out, even when they’re down, and Thursday night their dominance didn’t just come in brief three-goal spurts: It lasted for most of the game. And while Nashville will get the last change at home in Game 6 and have more of an opportunity to dictate play, the fact looms that the Penguins have never lost a game on the road with a chance to win the Stanley Cup. (They’ve won those four times, including last season in San Jose.)
There’s a saying that a playoff series doesn’t really start until the away team wins a game. On Sunday in Nashville, the Predators will try to force a Game 7, and the Penguins will try to win back-to-back Cups, meaning there are only two ways this series can go: It will either begin when it ends, or it will never start at all. It makes little sense, and so it sounds about right.