By Scott Taylor
Photo by James Carey Lauder
Preds Win Again
If the 2017 Stanley Cup Final is going to be about home ice advantage, I guess we’re going seven. If it’s about the team that’s playing best, it will be over in six.
And it won’t end in the way in which we originally expected.
On Monday night in Smashville, the Nashville Predators whipped the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins 4-1 in front of a now-legendary crowd that is right off the hook.
Granted the final goal by the Preds was scored into an empty net, but my point is simple. The Predators were the best team on the ice from start-to-finish for the fourth straight game and while we’re obviously in a 2-2 deadlock, there is this feeling that the 16th seed – eighth in the West – might just be good enough to steal this thing.
Playing in front of that wild and woolly crowd in Tennessee, the Predators dominated the Penguins for the fourth straight night. Calle Jarnkrok opened the scoring for Nashville, but Sidney Crosby tied it for Pittsburgh before the end of the opening period (Crosby is now 20th overall in career playoff scoring).
That’s when Frederick Gaudreau (with his third goal of the final and his second game-winner in two games) and the little speedster, Viktor Arvidsson, scored unanswered second-period goals for Nashville to put the game away. With Pekka Rinne playing like the real Pekka Rinne again, the Preds had all they needed at 3-1. Rinne stopped all 18 shots that he faced in the final two periods, Filip Forsberg finally scored his first goal of the final into the empty Pittsburgh net and the Preds had a 4-1 win on the heels of their 5-1 victory on Saturday.
Now the two teams will head back to Pittsburgh for Game 5 on Thursday, all even at two wins apiece.
In Nashville, Pittsburgh did not look like defending champions. Much of that had to do with the play of Rinne, who was first star on Monday and the man who made one of the great saves in playoff history off Penguins goal-scoring sensation Jake Guentzel. You’ve probably seen it re-played a thousand times by now. Rinne made 50 saves on 52 shots in the two games in Nashville and is now playing like the best goaltender in Predators history – which is exactly what he is.
On Monday, he earned his 36th playoff win and is now tied with Antti Niemi for most playoff wins by a Finnish-born goaltender. He’s now 14-6 in the 2017 playoffs and 9-1 at Bridgestone Arena (the Preds have outscored the opposition 34-15 in those 10 games at home) where he has a 1.44 goals against average and a .949 save percentage. He has been named first star in each of the last two games.
Of course, the biggest surprise in this final has been the goal-scoring prowess of one Frederick Gaudreau, the 24-year-old journeyman from Bromont, Que., who was playing in the ECHL in 2015. On Monday, he became only the second player in NHL history to score his first three NHL goals in the Stanley Cup Final. The other was John Harms of the Blackhawks, 73 years ago in the spring of 1944.
It’s also the first time in playoff history in which the four game-winning goals in the Final were all scored by rookies – Gaudreau has two and Guentzel has two.
“Gaudreau’s been unbelievable for us, the way he’s come in,” said Preds captain Mike Fisher. “He’s been so good, timely goals and composed. He definitely belongs, and he’s been a huge part of our success and it’s good to see for sure.”
Well, it’s amazing to see, that’s for sure.
As we noted, Game 5 goes Thursday in Pittsburgh. The Penguins need to find that magic they concocted in Games 1 and 2. They need to embarrass Rinne again. To do that, it might help if Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel get involved in the offense. They were both invisible in Nashville.
Fact is, Pittsburgh has been outplayed in every game. If Rinne is Rinne, they might just be done in six. Thursday’s game – now the first of a best two-out-of-three – is, without question, the pivotal game of this year’s Final.