Unlike the king-sized catfish that landed with a splat on the otherwise pristine Bridgestone Arena ice before the opening faceoff, the Penguins let Game Three of the Stanley Cup Final wriggle off the hook.
It was theirs for the taking. After scoring the opening goal on a hustling second-effort tally by Jake Guentzel—his 13th of this magical playoff run—the Pens looked poised and in control.
By contrast, the home-standing Predators appeared tight as a drum. Goalie Pekka Rinne seemed especially shaky as he struggled to find his game.
Then, as they’ve done so often throughout these playoffs, the Pens took their collective foot off the gas pedal. This time it cost ‘em.
Nashville evened the score on the power play, courtesy of a phantom holding penalty to Pens defenseman Justin Schultz early in the second period. Emboldened by their stroke of fortune, the Predators snatched the lead 42 seconds later on a quick-strike tally by Frederick Gaudreau, the second of the series for the unheralded rookie from tiny Bromont, Quebec.
Credit the Preds. Once they climbed on top they refused to let up, all the while capitalizing on the myriad opportunities afforded by the visitors.
Former Pen James Neal exorcised some demons with a crushing sharp-angle goal 23 seconds before the second-period horn. After the Preds staved off a mild push by the locals to start the final period, Craig Smith pounced on a Chris Kunitz turnover in the neutral zone to score on a breakaway, pretty much sticking a fork in any chance of a black-and-gold comeback.
Hulking Mattias Ekholm applied the piece de resistance at 13:10, blasting the puck past a beleaguered Matt Murray from the high slot for his first goal of the playoffs.
Some games, the other guys are just better. Such was the case in Music City last night.
From a Pens perspective, there was precious little to cheer. With the notable exception of the 27 seconds they spent together in the penalty box late in the third period, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were next to invisible…a rare occurrence.
Great as they are, Sid and Geno aren’t supermen. They’re going to have off nights once in a while. However, they’ll need to resurrect the “Two-Headed Monster” of yore in Game Four if the Pens expect to turn the tide.
Hopefully, the sweet nothings P.K. Subban whispered in Crosby’s ear at the end of the game twanged a nerve. Save for a crunching board check on Ryan Ellis that landed No. 87 in the sin bin, Sid’s competitive dander wasn’t up in Game Three.
Which brings me to my deepest, darkest fear. I still believe the Pens are the superior team, even in the wake of last night’s dreadful 5-1 hiding. But games aren’t played on paper. They’re contested on the ice, where intangibles such as heart, passion and drive often trump pure skill.
Can we match Nashville’s hunger?
The Preds have never won a Stanley Cup. They want one in the worst way. As evidenced by their full-on effort last night, they’re willing to pay any price—physically or otherwise—to attain it.
On the flip side, with our perimeter play and reluctance to crash the net, the Pens looked very much like a team that wanted to find its way around an obstacle, rather than meeting it head on.
I repeat the question. Can we match Nashville’s hunger?
Time will tell…
Nashville held the edge in shot attempts (60-51), shots on goal (33-28) and hits (33-26). The Penguins won 53 percent of the faceoffs and blocked 20 shots to the Preds’ 12. The Pens committed 12 giveaways.
The Predators were 2 for 3 on the power play. They’ve converted 4 of 10 opportunities with the man advantage. The Pens were 0 for 3. They’re 1 for 13 in the series.
Despite the outcome, Murray made a number of key stops, including a blocker pad save on Calle Jarnkrok midway through the first period. “Muzz” was beaten to the glove side on four of the five Nashville goals.
The defensive tandem of Brian Dumoulin and Ron Hainsey had a rough night. Each finished a minus-2, as did Kunitz and Phil Kessel. Matt Cullen, Patric Hornqvist and Kunitz earned 10-minute misconduct penalties, the result of a pair of late-game scuffles.
Carl Hagelin replaced Nick Bonino, who suffered an ankle injury in Game Two. The Pens are 6-6 this postseason with “Hags” in the lineup. Carter Rowney moved from right wing to center.