We’d all be joking if we truly believed the Pittsburgh Penguins would be here, one win away from winning back-to-back Stanley Cup titles. It’s not that the team wasn’t talented enough — they had 50 regular season wins and 111 points — it’s just that the hockey gods seemed hell bent on keeping Pittsburgh from winning the Cup two years in a row. Kris Letang’s injury, Matt Murray’s injury, Sidney Crosby’s injury. Any one of those could have derailed the postseason run. Having to face the Capitals in the second round, in a Game 7 in Washington, should have been their undoing. Having another series go seven games might have been too much hockey to handle.
The Murray or Fleury thing. Justin Schultz’s injury. Nick Bonino’s injury. There are probably five or six players who were injured and missed at least one game during this postseason we’re not mentioning. It’s almost too much for any team to survive. Almost. But the Penguins did, and have, and find themselves one game from being the first back-to-back champions in two decades.
Here are five things the Penguins need to do in Nashville tonight to win Game 6 and bring Lord Stanley’s Cup back home.
1. Quiet the crowd.
You might know this already, but it gets loud in Nashville. What you probably didn’t know is that the celebrated Nashville National Anthem singers aren’t announced in advance. The Predators like to surprise their fans by keeping it a secret until the artist or artists is/are called out onto the ice.
That’s probably in part because announcing a signer and then getting stood up would look really bad. Or it adds to the suspense and excitement of the moment. One of those. The Tennessean tried to guess who it might be, and even asked Reba McEntire if it’s her, but they didn’t get confirmation.
No matter who is singing, it’s worked. So far this postseason, the Predators are 9-1 at home, with the only loss coming in overtime. They are 5-6 on the road in the playoffs after Game 5’s loss, so clearly whatever magic they store in a cowboy hat-shaped bucket at home does not travel well.
After the Anthem is over, it’s Predators’ fans who keep the party going. Yeah, the catfish thing has gotten stupid, but it gets the crowd into what’s happening on the ice, and they do not stop for three periods and two intermissions … unless the opponent makes them stop.
No fan base can withstand a 6-0 thrashing in their own arena. If the Penguins can do to the Preds what they did in Game 5, it will take the crowd right out of the game. And, for what it’s worth, they don’t even really need to score six. Netting an early goal would start the worry. Netting two, and the crowd might be out of it before the first intermission.
2. Solve Nashville Pekka
Pekka Rinne has been pulled twice in the Stanley Cup Final, and in Game 5, he lasted just 20 minutes, saving six shots. In the loss in Game 1, Rinne made just seven saves on 11 shots after Nashville dominated the Penguins in nearly every other facet of the game. In Game 2, the other game he was pulled, he did stop 21 shots, but he let in four of the 25 he faced that included three in three and a half minutes in the third period, and another game the Preds should have won was lost.
In three games on the road in the Stanley Cup Final, Rinne has let in 11 goals on 45 shots.
In two home games in the Final, Rinne allowed two goals on 52 shots.
He’s admitted in this series he was nervous, so getting an early goal past him is crucial. The longer Rinne goes without giving up a Penguins goal, the more confident he’ll become, and the more the fans will get behind him. Of the 10 games in Nashville this postseason, Rinne has given up two goals or less eight times.
3. Replicate Pittsburgh Matt Murray
Matt Murray has played just 31 playoff games in his career, and yet somehow, he’s in net for what could be his second Stanley Cup celebration. In order for that to happen, not only do the Penguins need to figure out Rinne at home, but they need to get a world-class effort from Murray on the road.
So far this series, it hasn’t happened.
Murray has played five games on the road in the playoffs after coming back into the lineup to replace Marc-Andre Fleury. He played in two road losses in Ottawa and one win, but in the two losses he saved a combined 47 shots on 50 attempts on net. In the win he saved 28 of 30 shots. And yet, through five road games, Murray has just one win, and the Penguins have four losses.
In the last two road games, Murray let eight goals slide past him, saving 50 shots on 58 attempts. The bigger story? Murray faced 58 shots at the net in the last two games in Nashville. He can’t let five in like he did in Game 3 and expect to win. He probably can’t let three in like in Game 4 and expect to prevail either. But it’s not just him, it’s the guys in front of him who have to play like they’ve done at home, where Murray hasn’t lost this postseason, giving up just six goals in five games.
In Game 5, the Predators finished with 24 shots on goal but nine of them came in the third period, and even the six in the second period came after the game felt long over. The reason the Penguins are in a position to win the Cup tonight is because of their offense, but if it wasn’t for the defense — glued and duct taped together as best they can — the series might be very different.
Game 5 was the first time all series the Penguins weren’t outshot (it ended up even at 24-24), with the Predators winning that battle 147-115 so far. That’s not to say Pittsburgh hasn’t had chances, but Nashville has been able to get a body in front of so many shots in this series, and that’s something Pittsburgh wasn’t doing well enough, until Game 5. The Pens had 15 blocks in Game 5 to just seven for the Preds.
In order for the Pens to win in Nashville, they need fewer pucks getting to Murray. The less he has to save, the better.
5. Free up Malkin and Crosby (like in Game 5)
Evgeni Malkin looked like a shoo-in for the Conn Smythe Trophy a few games ago. Then rookie Jake Guentzel got white hot and people started to suggest he might top Geno for the trophy. Those people are probably wrong, unless Guentzel scores another game winner to seal the Cup. And yet, even if he doesn’t score in Game 6, Guentzel might still win it. But he shouldn’t, because Malkin should.
Malkin has 28 points through 24 playoff games, including 10 goals and 18 assists. He’s a plus-9 in the playoffs, nine of his 10 goals this postseason have come even strength and his shooting percentage is 17.5, basically the best rate in his career. Malkin hasn’t been as good in the Final as he was in previous rounds, in large part because Nashville has gone out of their way to stop him, freeing up opportunities for other players with him on the ice.
And still, in the three wins this series, Malkin has three goals and an assist, scoring a goal in each victory. If he gets one in Game 6, it’s a good sign for the Pens, and it could be an MVP sealer for him.
Unless, of course, the captain has a say.
Crosby missed one game and most of another with a concussion during the playoffs, but in 23 contests — his 448 minutes on the ice are actually 11 more than Malkin has played this postseason despite fewer games — he has 27 points on eight goals and 19 assists. Half his goals have come on the power play, and his shooting percentage is 13.6 percent, much lower than Malkin’s, but nearly double what he had last season.
In 2016, Crosby won the Conn Smythe with 19 points in 24 games. He was a minus-2 in the playoffs and he won MVP.
This year he’s a plus-3 through five games of the Final, plus-4 in the Final itself. Crosby has just one goal in his last seven playoff games, and that was the lone Pittsburgh goal in Game 4’s blowout loss, but he did have three assists in Game 5 and owned the ice. If he does it again, he might be lifting two trophies again tonight.