By Scott Taylor
Penguins Win Big
The Pittsburgh Penguins will head into Nashville on Sunday night with a 3-2 lead in the NHL’s championship series. They will also have good reason to believe they can lock up their second straight Stanley Cup, this time on the road.
The Nashville Predators, meanwhile, have to bounce back from a 6-0 shellacking in Pittsburgh on Thursday night. Of course, in this series they’ve done that before.
Thursday night, Sidney Crosby set up three goals, the heretofore AWOL Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin showed up and scored goals and Matt Murray recorded the shutout as the penguins built a 6-0 lead after two periods and coasted to their third win in the series. They are now just one win away from being the first team in 20 years to win back-to-back National Hockey League championships.
“There is still a lot of work to be done,” said Crosby, making sure he sticks with those meaningless, oft-ignored clichés. “Still, the way we played tonight, if we can build off that momentum, that’s important. Yes, we know we’re going to be facing a desperate team and we’ve already played two games there and know the atmosphere and know how much they feed off their fans. So we still have a lot of work to do.”
Ever since that bizarre Game 1 when Pittsburgh built a 3-0 lead, allowed Nashville to tie it up and then won it 5-3 by scoring five goals on 12 total shots; the series has been one blowout after another. The Pens took a 2-0 series lead with a 4-1 win in Pittsburgh in Game 2, then Nashville won 5-1 and 4-1 at home to tie the series and then Pittsburgh whipped Nashville 6-0 in Game 5. Now, now we head back to a place where Nashville is 9-1 in the playoffs and has already outscored the Pens 9-2.
“We’re going into Game 5 with the same approach,” said Nashville coach Peter Laviolette at today’s news conference. “We need to win a hockey game. We came back after losing two and I said at that point that there’s a lot of confidence in our group on how we play the game. We’ve liked a lot of what we’ve done in this series. We don’t like the way we played Thursday. We’re all ready to own that. We’re ready to admit that, and we’re ready to move forward from it.”
They should certainly have confidence on Sunday. After all, they don’t lose very often in Smashville.
However, while Justin Schultz, Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary and Ron Hainsey also scored for the Pens on Thursday night, Woodbury’s Jake Guentzel tied the NHL record for playoff points by a rookie with 21 (13 goals and eight assists). Even more important, Malkin and Kessel made an appearance and that has to be disconcerting for Nashville. The Preds had shut down two of Pittsburgh’s Big 3 for most of this series. If those two are actually ready to go hard in Nashville, it could be tougher than the Predators think.
Meanwhile, there was also a bit of a goaltending worry – again – for Laviolette. While Murray made 24 saves to get the shutout, Laviolette yanked Pekka Rinne after giving up three goals on nine shots. Backup Juuse Saros didn’t fare much better, allowing three more on 15 shots.
Still all five games of the series have been won by the home team (strangely, that’s happened only 12 times since 1939), so Nashville has that going for it in Game 6 on Sunday. However, the Preds need to get off to a good start. Pittsburgh has outscored Nashville 9-2 in the first period of each the five games so far in this final.
Oh, and history says that the team that won Game 5 has gone on to win the Stanley Cup 17 of the last 24 times.
Almost two weeks ago, we picked the Penguins to win this series in six. If Crosby continues to play at the level he’s played at throughout this series, if Malkin and Kessel show up again and if Pekka Rinne struggles one more time, we just might be right.