Just as goaltender Pekka Rinne had said during the Predators’ darkest playoff hour, they had life and they had hope Friday despite facing elimination for the first time in their improbable and intriguing run to the Stanley Cup Final.
Although most coaches preach that wins and losses are best forgotten quickly, Nashville coach Peter Laviolette wanted his players to hold on to the sting of being overrun in a 6-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday. Hate it enough, he figured, and they’d be motivated to play better because they’d never want to feel so wretched again. Returning to Nashville, where they’re 9-1 in postseason play, meant it was time to shift their focus toward what they can still accomplish instead of bemoaning what might have been.
“We've got a lot of confidence in our group to be better, to get better, and to play a good game,” Laviolette said Friday. “I don't think that there's any searching going on in there on how we’re going to do this or what needs to take place. We need to play a better game. We've proven that we can and we have in the past, and there's a lot of confidence that we will in a couple days.”
The Predators can take heart from knowing there has been little carryover of momentum from one game to the next in the playoffs this spring.
Three teams have lost by six goals but each rebounded to win the next game, including the Ducks’ 7-1 loss to Edmonton in Game 6 of their second-round series followed by a 2-1 victory over the Oilers in Game 7. If there has been one constant in these playoffs — in addition to spotty officiating — it’s that there is no consistency within games and within series.
That remains true in the Cup Final. The Penguins won the first two games at home, were outscored 9-2 in losing Games 3 and 4 on the road, and blew the Predators out of PPG Paints Arena in Game 5 with a formidable display of speed and finesse. It can’t be good news for the Predators that Phil Kessel (one goal, three points), Evgeni Malkin (one goal, two points) and Sidney Crosby (three assists) hit stride simultaneously and emphatically.
“They seemed to have a lot of stuff going,” Rinne said after Nashville’s loss Thursday, the last two periods of which he watched from the bench. “Their best players were their best players and played with a lot of speed, created a lot of good space. I think everybody saw a lot of the goals were on nice passing plays.”
The Cup will be at Bridgestone Arena on Sunday for Game 6 in all its gleaming glory, ready to be kissed and passed from hand to hand. If the Penguins can break the pattern of home teams having won each game, they’ll take it back to Pittsburgh as the first team to win back-to-back championships since the 1998 Detroit Red Wings. If Rinne can again be the wall he was in Games 3 and 4 in Nashville, where he yielded only two goals in 52 shots, there will be a Game 7 at Pittsburgh on Wednesday.
“The thing about the playoffs, if we win Games 3 and 4, then for sure we're going to win Game 5, right? And it just doesn't work that way in the playoffs,” Laviolette said. “You know, every game is its own chapter. It's its own slice of the pie, and you've got to go out and fight for that slice every day and be ready to write that chapter. Last chapter doesn't have anything to do with it.”
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan agreed.
“Sometimes just every game tends to take on its own identity,” he said. “I think we're just trying to prepare for that one game ahead of us, and we're hopeful that we'll put our best game on the ice.”
It’s difficult to imagine them topping their performance Thursday, when Crosby dominated from the start and 12 players earned at least one point. Winger Jake Guentzel’s second-period assist gave him 21 playoff points and tied the record for a rookie in one playoff year, set by Minnesota’s Dino Ciccarelli in 1981 and matched in 2010 by Philadelphia’s Ville Leino. Crosby tied Denis Potvin for 19th in all-time playoff points, with 164, and recorded his 56th multi-point playoff game, tying Glenn Anderson and Paul Coffey for the fourth-most behind Wayne Gretzky’s 108.
For those seeking omens, there’s this: the Penguins clinched each of their previous Cup titles on the road, winning at Minnesota in 1991, at Chicago in 1992, at Detroit in 2009 and at San Jose last year. But Sullivan isn’t looking for cosmic signs. He’s just looking for one win.
“I believe that this group understands the circumstances that we're in. I think they have a lot of experience to draw on,” he said. “So we understand how difficult this game is going to be and how hard that we're going to have to play and how prepared we’re going to have to be ultimately to have success.”