Go back in time with me to the night of October 30, 1974. Considered on the downside of a brilliant boxing career, 32-year-old Muhammad Ali faced heavyweight champ George Foreman, a murderous puncher who’d kayoed 37 of 40 professional opponents.
Few gave Ali a chance against the powerful Foreman, undefeated and seven years his junior. Those who did felt the ex-champ needed to stay on his toes. Yet at the opening bell, Ali confounded the experts—not to mention his corner—by backing into the ropes and inviting Foreman to hit him.
For seven rounds Big George hammered away while Ali deftly slipped, blocked and parried many of his thunderous blows. Toward the end of the eighth round—Foreman exhausted from all the punching—could barely lift his massive arms.
Then Ali came off the ropes. With stunning speed and precision, he landed a crisp left-right combination, buckling Foreman’s knees. Down went Big George.
So what’s with the long-winded boxing analogy?
I keep expecting our Penguins to snap back to last spring’s form, when they overwhelmed foes with a lethal dose of skill, speed and pressure. Kind of like a youthful Ali used to do before age and attrition caught up with him.
Instead, the Pens keep reverting to an odd, bend-but-not-break style as they did during last night’s scintillating 4-1 triumph over Nashville. They allow their opponent to take the early initiative, then…WHAM…they respond in devastating, counter-punch fashion. Wholly reminiscent of Ali’s “rope-a-dope” tactic.
It’s a trend likely born out of necessity rather than choice. Like the aging Ali, the Pens don’t seem to have the legs at this stage to mount a sustained attack—at least not for a prolonged stretch of time. Not after logging a grueling 221 games and counting, including the pre- and postseason, over the past 21 months. Talk about putting some hard miles on your hockey odometer!
Then there’s the not-so-little matter of the opposition, hungry as a pack of ravenous wolves and willing to do pretty much whatever it takes to dethrone the defending champs, even if it means straying beyond the boundaries of fair and gentlemanly play.
Yet the Pens have become so good at this hybrid game. They’ll take a punch (or lots of punches) early, secure in the knowledge that ultra-cool goalie Matt Murray and their gritty, undervalued defense will somehow weather the storm. Then they pounce when the opportunity presents itself, often with devastating effect.
In other words, they’ve mastered the art of turning it on at precisely the right time.
Such was the case in Game Two. Nashville came at us hard, piling up 18 first-period shots on goal (32 over the first 40 minutes). They grabbed the early lead on a dazzling tally by speedy Pontus Aberg, who swept around Olli Maatta, sliced through the crease and lifted the puck over a prone and helpless Murray.
Stressed to the limit, you could feel the Pens’ mainspring was about to snap. Then rookie sensation Jake Guentzel chipped the puck through the tiniest of openings between Pekka Rinne’s body and arm at 16:36 of the first period to sway the momentum. At the other end of the ice Murray—shrugging off the game-opening goal with typical equanimity—made a brilliant stop on Scott Sissons in the closing seconds of the frame to keep the score knotted at 1-1.
“Muzz” continued to sparkle in the second period. Six minutes in he snared Filip Forsberg’s 2-on-1 sizzler as casually as if he were picking berries on a Sunday afternoon. Midway through he flashed the leather again, snatching Roman Josi’s blast from the top of the left circle.
Cue the Pens’ explosion. Seconds after the faceoff to begin the third period, Bryan Rust flew down the right side of the Preds’ zone and fired. The puck thudded off Rinne’s pads and onto the waiting stick of Guentzel, who wired it home.
Three minutes later Phil Kessel delivered one of his patently hard passes from a sharp angle. The puck nipped Scott Wilson’s stick blade and deflected off a backtracking Vernon Fiddler, squirting through Rinne’s exposed five-hole.
The crowd was still celebrating when Evgeni Malkin tipped the puck away from Sissons along the boards and scampered up ice. “Geno” beat the shell-shocked Rinne with a blistering top-shelf drive that caught the corner of the post and crossbar and went in.
Three goals in 3:18; two in 15 seconds. Exit Rinne and enter Juuse Saros, soon to be victimized by Patric Hornqvist. While the marker was rightfully disallowed due to an offside play, the damage was done.
Holding the Preds to a lone scoring chance over the final 20 minutes, the Pens gave a clinic on how to protect a lead. Electing to play hit men Cody McLeod and Austin Watson, Nashville coach Peter Laviolette virtually ran up the white flag of surrender in the closing moments. McLeod promptly drew an interference penalty with two minutes remaining.
So much for terror tactics.
Nashville dominated in most statistical categories, including shot attempts (71-41), shots on goal (38-27), hits (41-35) and faceoffs (44-33). The Pens were 0-for-7 on the power play, the Predators 0-for-4.
With a playoff-leading 12 goals, Guentzel established a new postseason record for American-born rookies, eclipsing the mark he shared with Jeremy Roenick. Jake earned star-of-the-game honors.
Murray, the No. 2 star, stopped 37 of 38 shots. Malkin, named No. 3 star, fought P.K. Subban at 12:14 of the third period.
Chris Kunitz continued his hot hand, collecting two assists. The feisty winger has two goals and five assists (seven points) in his past three games. Carter Rowney led the team with a game-high seven hits.