By Scott Taylor
Photo by James Carey Lauder
The best team won. That is not a statement on the quality of the two small-market teams in the Stanley Cup final, but it is a statement on the team that has played the best hockey in this year’s championship series.
No one doubts the talent or heart of the Pittsburgh Penguins. After all, through three games of this year’s final, the Penguins hold a 2-1 series advantage. However, in every game, the Nashville Predators have fired more shots on goal, have controlled the puck longer, have generated the most scoring chances and, taking everything but the goaltending into consideration, should be ahead in the series.
However, after Saturday night’s 5-1 Nashville shellacking of the defending Cup champions, we know that, clearly, the best team won on Saturday and maybe the best team is about to turn this series around.
Granted, TV ratings haven’t been great for the Stanley Cup final (although they are up from last year’s “historically low numbers”), but the games themselves have been memorable.
Getting home to play in front of the incredible fans of Nashville didn’t make much of a difference early. Jake Guentzel, the Woodbury kid who gets better with every shift and just might steal the Conn Smythe Trophy, got Pittsburgh on the board with his 13th post-season just two minutes into the game, but early in the second period Nashville might have changed everything.
With the sold out crowd at Bridgestone Arena going completely nuts, the Preds scored twice in the first seven minutes of the second period. The momentum switched at the 5:51 mark of the second when Roman Josi and Frederick Gaudreau scored within 42 seconds of each other.
James Neal scored again, just 23 seconds before the second intermission, putting Nashville up 3-1, and then Craig Smith and Mattias Ekholm added insurance goals in the third period to seal the deal.
The barrage made good on defenseman PK Subban’s guarantee that Nashville would win. It’s unlikely he’ll need one for Game 4 at Smashville on Monday night.
No doubt, there was a lot of frustration in the Predators room after Game 2. They clearly outplayed Pittsburgh and yet lost 5-3 and 4-1 because All-World goalie Pekka Rinne didn’t play very well. But on Saturday, Rinne was at his best – after a wobbly start – and made 27 saves to get the win. Those rocky first two games in Pittsburgh have been forgotten. At least temporarily.
This has been quite a series. Two teams that were once near bankruptcy – Pittsburgh in 1975 and 1998 and Nashville in 2007 – are now the talk of the National Hockey League.
In fact, the Predators were on the verge of selling to Hamilton, Ont. businessman Jim Balsillie when when a group that includes 59-year-old Calgary businessman Brett Wilson stepped up and bought the team and left them on Broadway in Nashville.
Now, the Predators are beloved. On Saturday, there were thousands of fans both inside and outside the rink as Nashville won its eighth home game in nine outings this spring.
Sure, TV ratings are down in both Canada and the United States and outside Pittsburgh and Nashville there isn’t a lot of buzz for this series. However, the hockey has been intense, physical and interesting and the sub-plots have produced plenty of intrigue.
If nothing else, this year’s Stanley Cup final proves that small-market franchises in a league with clubs in New York, Chicago and L.A. can compete, thanks in no small way to the salary cap and brilliant management.
Monday night’s Game 4 might not produce a record number of TV viewers, but it will be a heck of a hockey game.