PITTSBURGH – The winning team went nearly two full periods without a shot. The hottest goaltender in the playoffs was only tested 11 times in 58 minutes — and lost.
No wonder Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan described his team’s 5-3 victory over Nashville in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final as “bizarre.”
And that doesn’t even include the catfish tossed onto the ice by a Predators fan at PPG Paints Arena in the middle of a second period. The fish that splatted on the Nashville blue line earned the thrower three misdemeanor charges and also came as close to Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne as anything the Penguins managed during 20 minutes in which the highest-scoring team in the league couldn’t even muster a single shot.
“It’s not always pretty,” Sullivan said Tuesday. “We don’t get points for style. But what I love about our team is that we find ways to win, we compete.”
True, though for the majority of Game 1, the competition was pretty one-sided. The Predators controlled the pace and the puck, just not the scoreboard. It left the guys from “Smashville” in a new position for the first time since they began their mad dash to the final a month ago: chaser instead of chasee as Game 2 looms on Wednesday night.
“Now we face a little adversity,” said defenseman Ryan Ellis, who scored the first Stanley Cup Final goal in team history. “We see what kind of group and character we have to bounce back.”
The Predators haven’t dropped consecutive games in the postseason and their four previous losses were pretty easy to explain. What happened on Monday night was not. The only area where Nashville wasn’t markedly better than the defending Stanley Cup champions is the only one that really matters.
“Everything was there that we liked but the result,” Ellis said.
Ellis described the Predators as more disappointed than mad. You can probably add baffled to the list. Nashville became the first team since the NHL began tracking the stat in 1957 to hold a team without a shot for an entire period during the Stanley Cup Final. The gulf actually stretched 37 minutes in all, which sounds like a perfect way for the opponent to win.
Except the streak was bookended by goals. The first, a ricochet off Nashville defenseman Mattias Ekholm, gave the Penguins a 3-0 lead with 17 seconds left in the first period. The second, a sniper shot by Penguins rookie Jake Guentzel exactly 37 minutes later, put Pittsburgh back in front to stay at 4-3.
The angst Nashville felt isn’t new to those who face the Penguins. Pittsburgh was outshot throughout the first two rounds of the playoffs. It didn’t stop the Penguins from knocking off Columbus in five games and Washington in seven. There’s a bit of a changeling quality to this group as opposed to the one that beat San Jose in six games to win the Cup last spring.
Sullivan calls it the ability to “win games different ways,” but what happened in Game 1 seems borderline impossible. The Penguins understand they were equal parts lucky and good. They also understand they can’t afford to have their offense go dormant for nearly two periods.
Only a handful of Penguins participated in a skate on Tuesday, though the video room was crowded while they searched for ways to make sure a funk like that doesn’t happen again.
“We know that’s not necessarily the way you want to play the game every night,” Crosby said.
The Predators are more focused on the process than the end product. Save for a bumpy stretch near the end of the first period where the Penguins scored three times, Nashville did exactly what it wanted to do. Defenseman P.K. Subban pointed to the response after falling behind by three as proof the stage is not too big.
“It’s easy in a Stanley Cup game to come back in the room, everybody is quiet, nerves,” Subban said. “But that’s not our hockey club. We know how good we can be. The way we responded was typical Nashville Predators.”
Typical for everyone except Rinne. The 34-year-old goalie is the main reason Nashville’s season will extend into June for the first time. Yet his iffy play in Game 1 continued a troubling trend. He came into the series 1-5-2 with a .880 save percentage and 3.57 goals-against average in his career against the Penguins, numbers that ticked in the wrong direction even though he spent a majority of three periods standing in his crease with nothing to do while his teammates were at work at the other end of the ice.
Rinne’s teammates rallied to his defense. They’re well aware that without him they likely would have traded their sticks for golf clubs long ago.
“Looking back since I came here a couple years ago, he’s been the best player in almost all of the games played,” Filip Forsberg said. “We have all the belief in Pekks we can ever have. I’m looking forward to see him play next game.”