After two games of the Stanley Cup Final, the Penguins were ahead 2-0 despite being outplayed in both contests. After four games, the Pens were tied with the Predators 2-2 and, while having played better in Nashville than they did on home ice, were still outplayed in all four games of the series.
Game 5 was big. Game 5 was as much a must-win for Pittsburgh as a non-elimination game could ever be. Game 5 was, in a word, perfection.
The Penguins were perfect at home for the first time this series, playing their best collective game since Game 5 against Ottawa. The goals came early, and they came often. The defense, much maligned and paper thin during this series, had by far their best game, stymieing the Predators the entire 60 minutes.Justin Schultz drew first blood for the Penguins when he scored a
Justin Schultz drew first blood for the Penguins when he scored a power play goal 1:31 into the game. The tally was set up by Sidney Crosby, as he split the Preds’ defense to get an early chance on goal, drawing a holding penalty less than a minute into play. And just like that, it was 1-0.
— NBC Sports (@NBCSports) June 9, 2017
Five minutes later, Bryan Rust shook off the, uh, cobwebs to net a nifty backhander past Pekka Rinne to make the score 2-0 and remind fans inside the Paint Can that the only position the Preds didn’t outplay the Pens in Games 1 and 2 was in net, when Rinne was horrible.
In the first period Thursday, Rinne was horrible again. If, perhaps, the Rust goal was one Rinne could have saved, there’s little question he should have reacted better to Malkin’s strike to make it 3-0.
Just look at how late he reacts with the glove. For some reason, Rinne is not the same guy in Pittsburgh as he was for the two games in Nashville, or the previous three playoff series. He was pulled after the first period, making six saves on nine shots. His backup, Juuse Saros, wasn’t much better.
The first period was so good for the Penguins that before Malkin scored his 4-on-4 goal, Sidney Crosby did this to PK Subban, and they both ended up getting holding penalties.
Everything was coming up Penguins Thursday night. Crosby actually flipped a water bottle onto the ice at one point and wasn’t given a penalty, later telling one of the referees it slipped out of his hand. That shouldn’t matter, and play should have at the very least been stopped. Instead, play continued, and the Penguins scored another goal.
Speaking of the captain, we’re not sure if Crosby read that terrible article questioning his legacy if the Penguins lose this series, but it sure as heck looked like he was thinking about it. Through two periods, Crosby led the Penguins forward in ice time and had three assists, two primary helpers. He was everywhere, and he led the way for a resurgent Pittsburgh offense.
He wasn’t the only Penguin able to rebound from a few low-scoring games in Nashville. After Conor Sheary scored his second goal of the postseason 1:19 into the second period, Phil Kessel finally scored — his eighth of the playoffs but what feels like his first in a month — eight minutes in on a typical Phil Kessel goal.
Needing just one win in two games, the Penguins are as close to back-to-back titles as anyone has been in 20 years. Look, if Kessel is scoring again, this series is probably over. If Ron Hainsey is scoring, well, the Preds probably stopped trying.
Matt Murray, the guy in net for Pittsburgh who half the city wanted to replace after two games in Nashville, saved 24 of the 24 shots he faced. He, too, was perfect.
And so, to recap, the Penguins shutout the Predators, scored six goals, had three assists from their captain, a goal and an assist from their leading scorer in Malkin, a goal and two assists from sniper extraordinaire Kessel, a power play goal from Schultz and got three goals from their role players in Rust, Sheary and Hainsey.
The only thing that could have made the game better for the Penguins is if Jake Guentzel scored again. Alas, there’s always Game 6.
Four of the last five Stanley Cup Finals were decided in six games, including last season when the Penguins beat the San Jose Sharks. Sure, it would be fun to see the Pens win the Cup at home, but given the way this series has played out, that would mean the Preds force a Game 7, and it’s hard to think anyone really wants this series to go the full seven.
And yet, it might. The Preds are a different team at home, losing just one game in 10 hosted this postseason, and the Preds have two days off to rebound from this debacle. Game 6 is in Nashville on Sunday.
If the Penguins win, they bring back with them the Stanley Cup. If they lose, they bring the Preds back instead.