PITTSBURGH — Three-hundred sixty-one days after winning the Stanley Cup for the fourth time, the Pittsburgh Penguins are one win away from capturing their fifth championship in their 50th year, with a 6-0 win here over the Nashville Predators in Game Five of the Final on Thursday night.
The Penguins dominated from the drop of the puck, beating the Predators with their speed and brilliant shots, mixed in with the Preds’ own incompetence. Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne was befuddled by Pittsburgh’s offense and just over one minute into the second period he was pulled after allowing his third goal on nine shots. In the three games played in Pittsburgh in this series, Rinne has been yanked twice. Coming into the Final, he was a top Conn Smythe contender.
Rinne’s backup, Juuse Saros, has just 23 NHL games of experience, including his two partial games in this series. He allowed two goals in his first seven minutes in the crease.
By then, Nashville looked dazed, their minds obviously running through the difficult task that awaits them now. When a Final has been tied 2-2, the team that wins Game Five has lifted the Cup 71 percent of the time.
This series, more than anything, has been dictated by the venue. Despite playing on the same basic 200 foot ice sheet, the home teams have won every game in this series.
After Game Five, the Penguins and Predators are a combined 19-4 at home in the postseason.
After putting the Preds down 2-0 in the first two games at PPG Paints Arena, the Pens came back home after being outscored 9-2 in Nashville and dropping both games.
“I think it’s just the comfort of being in your own building,” Predators forward Harry Zolnierczyk said before the game when asked if home ice advantage was more than a talking point for pundits. “You’re in your in your normal game-day routine of sleeping in your own bed, your spot you eat at every day.”
Unfortunately for Zolnierczyk and his teammates, the friendly confines of a chilly rink on a dreary day in Western Pittsburgh was heaven for the Penguins.
“Tonight it’s not really about that,” Predators sniper Filip Forsberg said, dismissing any advantage the hosts may have. “Tonight’s it’s all about our effort.”
The Penguins have now won seven straight games on home ice.
“These guys, they just get it,” Pittsburgh head coach Mike Sullivan said about his team’s ability to bounce back from tough losses. “We’ve just come to believe they’ll respond the right way because we’ve seen them do it.”
The game began auspiciously for Pittsburgh when Sidney Crosby drew a holding call on Predators top-four defenseman Ryan Ellis, who was hurt later in the game and did not return. Nashville head coach Peter Laviolette did not give an update on Ellis’s injury after the game.
“When you give a puck to a player like that with speed, he can do dangerous things,” Crosby’s linemate Jake Guentzel said of the play that got the Penguins off to a running start.
Ninety-one seconds into the game, Justin Schultz unleashed a blast from the point on the ensuing power play that deflected off Nashville’s Austin Watson and tumbled into the twine.
The Penguins did not relent, attempting 11 shots to the Predators’ three in the first eight minutes of the game. Nashville possessed the puck better as the game went on, but their goaltending faltered while Pittsburgh goalie Matt Murray, who had two bad games on the road, registered a shutout on 24 shots.
As Murray stood tall, Bryan Rust added another goal for Pittsburgh 6:43 into the opening frame. It was a display of the Pens’ trademark speed, as they flipped the puck past the defense. Chris Kunitz caught up to it and fed it to Rust who was wide open in the slot.
After Crosby and PK Subban both drew minors late in the third period due to some questionable refereeing late in the period, Evgeni Malkin quickly snapped the puck past Rinne despite being guarded by two Predators players with just 10.2 seconds showing on the game clock.
After some deep breaths for the two teams after a wild first period, things calmed down. Nashville put a new goalie in net. And it worked — for 79 seconds. That that point Crosby displayed his sublime passing sixth sense, backhanding the puck to Conor Sheary, who flipped over Saros’s right pad on the first shot the Finnish goaltender faced. Guentzel picked up the secondary assist on the goal, tying him for the most all-time (20) by a rookie in the playoffs.
Phil Kessel added another tally for with a tough, workmanlike rocket from the between the circles.
The Penguins boast the top four scorers in this postseason: Malkin, Crosby, Guentzel, and Kessel. Twelve of Pittsburgh’s 18 skaters registered at least a point in game five.
Even Ron Hainsey, a 36-year-old defenseman who had four goals in the regular season, got in on the action, escaping the Preds’ defense before slipping in a ripe feed from Malkin that passed in front of Saros’s crease.
“The start is not good enough, the second period was even worse, and the third period, I mean, it’s already 6-0,” Forsberg said of the game that pushed the Predators to the brink of elimination for the first time in these playoffs.
Chris Gordon Suit of the Night Selfie pic.twitter.com/Fn5Lz5x2vI
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On Thursday night, the Penguins had the game in the bag before they even broke a sweat. But every match in this series has been odd, lopsided, or both.
Anything could happen in Nashville on Sunday — and I mean anything. During Game Six, the Country Music Awards Festival will hold outdoor shows just blocks away from Bridgestone Arena. This in a city that already draws 50,000 people downtown for Stanley Cup Final games they can’t get into.
Whatever happens, it’s going to be one hell of a show — perhaps one with an encore Wednesday night in Pittsburgh.
“As long as there’s life, there’s hope,” Rinne said.
Headline photo: Matt Kincaid
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