PITTSBURGH — There went Pekka Rinne, headed down the visiting tunnel and into the dark, leaving his stick on the carpet and a two-game series deficit on the ice. It had all vanished so suddenly for Nashville and its goalie, snatched away by this black-and-gold nitrous button of a Pittsburgh Penguins team. “They turn the game fast,” Rinne said later, after learning the hard way at the worst possible time: three goals over three and a half minutes, one 10 seconds into the third period, the others spaced 15 seconds apart. The haymakers landed hard.
After Wednesday night’s 4-1 loss, the prevailing buzzword was “opportunistic” inside the Predators’ gobsmacked dressing room. “There’s no real answer for it,” defenseman Ryan Ellis said, by way of demonstration. “They’re an opportunistic team. Quick stretch of hockey and we found ourself down in both games.” Yes, the Penguins required slightly longer in Monday’s Game 1—three goals spanning 4:10 during the first period—but the aftermath felt similar. They were mathematically out-shot, largely outplayed, and unquestionably moved closer toward claiming back-to-back Stanley Cup titles. “The results aren’t there,” Ellis said. “This is a winning business, and at the end of the day you just have to win.”
Over in the corner, Rinne was waiting by his stall when the doors opened. He spoke about the “limited chances” that Pittsburgh converted, and about “feeling positive” as the series shifts to Nashville, and about the “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity facing him, who like most of the Predators had never before appeared on this stage.
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But after Evgeni Malkin buzzed the fourth goal over Rinne’s glove and coach Peter Laviolette summoned backup Juuse Saros in relief, the question is whether the 34-year-old franchise bedrock will get another chance. Asked about Rinne’s potential to start Game 3, Laviolette praised his goalie to the heavens but fell a few wedding rings short of full commitment: “Pekka has been excellent for us all year long. There's things that we could have done. All three goals in the third period were odd-man rushes.”
When at its its best, Nashville does not allow odd-man rushes. “Hardly ever in the playoffs,” captain Mike Fisher said. Yet there was Malkin, free to choose between the top corner and Phil Kessel on the backdoor, choosing wisely. And Kessel, heaving a two-on-one centering pass that ricocheted off Predators center Vernon Fiddler’s skate and through Rinne’s five-hole. And Jake Guentzel, hydroplaning a juicy rebound into a virtually empty net, becoming only the second rookie ever with a dozen goals in a single postseason. And a 1-1 tie—assembled by Pontus Aberg's marvelous solo move and Guentzel squeezing a backhander through a coin slot-sized hole in Rinne's padding—quickly blown off its hinges. “They’re opportunistic,” Laviolette said. (Buzz!) “They’ve got good players.”
Which allows these underdog Predators even slimmer margins moving forward. Since Mike Sullivan took over behind the Penguins' bench in Dec. 2015, his team has dropped four of five on just two occasions—immediately after former coach Mike Johnston’s firing and during a four-game slide this March that included two shootout losses. They are not steamrolling opponents like last spring—goalie Matt Murray needed to make 37 saves in Game 2—though ascribing a rope-a-dope strategy doesn’t quite fit either. It’s not like they’re scheming to endure shot droughts of 37:00 and 9:50, as was the case in Games 1 and 2, respectively; their meter just happens to flick between hibernation and domination, with little else in between.
“I think this team has an inner belief that we can score goals,” Sullivan said, “and they’ve provided plenty of evidence to suggest that.”
The Predators, too, have offered plenty of proof that they aren’t cooked. Through 60 minutes, they have out-attempted Pittsburgh by 43 and held Malkin and Sidney Crosby to a combined six shots. They are headed home to Bridgestone Arena, that earsplitting palace of soccer-style chants and live guitar licks, where have lost just once this postseason. “We’re here for a reason,” Ellis said. “Our system’s worked all year. We made the playoffs, we got through three rounds, and our strongest thing is our system. Once in awhile it’s going to break down.
“It just seems like every time it does, it’s a chance or it’s a goal.”