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The Pittsburgh Penguins need two more victories to capture their second-consecutive Stanley Cup crown.
In a vacuum, there’s nothing surprising about the NHL‘s premier scoring offense registering nine goals in two home contests against the Nashville Predators, a discernible underdog who entered the postseason with 94 points. Why wouldn’t Sidney Crosby and Co. handle business inside PPG Paints Arena?
And yet, the Predators attempted 64 combined shots to the Penguins’ 39 during both losses. Despite recording five goals in Game 1’s win, Pittsburgh set a dubious milestone noted by ESPN Stats & Info:
ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo
The Penguins’ 12 shots in Game 1 are the fewest in a Stanley Cup Final win since shots on goal became official in 1957-58 (via @EliasSports) https://t.co/6ritJ1okSO
Perhaps the Penguins are simply making their few chances count against Predators goalie Pekka Rinne. Or maybe this series is far from over. Let’s look at the updated schedule as the Stanley Cup Final venue shifts to Nashville.
Stanley Cup Final Schedule
Game 3: Saturday, June 3 at 8 p.m. on NBCSN (at Nashville)
Game 4: Monday, June 5 at 8 p.m. ET on NBC (at Nashville)
Game 5*: Thursday, June 8 at 8 p.m. ET on NBC (at Pittsburgh)
Game 6*: Sunday, June 11 at 8 p.m. ET on NBC (at Nashville)
Game 7*: Wednesday, June 14 at 8 p.m. ET on NBC (at Pittsburgh)
Can Predators Come Back?
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Following Wednesday night’s 4-1 loss, Nashville defenseman P.K. Subban calmly declared, per Sportsnet, that “We’re gonna win the next game.” Given a chance to backpedal from his proclamation, he instead doubled down when speaking to reports on Thursday, per ESPN.com.
“I feel even more confident now that I had a night of rest,” Subban said. “There’s no question we are going to win the next game.”
His conviction could stem from Nashville dominating puck possession, a problem Pittsburgh has incurred all postseason. According to NHL.com, they have allowed a playoff-worst 1,017 shots, sinking their shot margin to minus-137.
Should he trust Rinne to bounce back from a disastrous Pittsburgh trip? Prior to the Stanley Cup Final, the 34-year-old sported a postseason 94.1 save percentage. Instead of bolstering his Conn Smythe Trophy candidacy, he must answer critics calling for his benching.
Rinne has saved 28 of just 36 Penguins shot attempts. As noted by HockeyBuzz’s Sheng Peng, his Game 1 performance was the worst in postseason history:
Sheng Peng @Sheng_Peng
And here are your 10-worst full-game playoff goaltending performances since 1967 https://t.co/gsplmQn5mA
He responded in Game 2 by relinquishing three goals within the third period’s opening 3:30 minutes, prompting Predators coach Peter Laviolette to sit him for Juuse Saros. When asked who will start Game 3, per Pittsburgh Post-Gazette‘s Sean Gentille, Laviolette refused to share his decision.
“We don’t talk about the lineup” Laviolette said on Thursday. “When they ask the next day, we’re going to stay consistent with that. We don’t discuss the lineup.”
Rinne’s strong goaltending led Nashville to an unlikely Western Conference triumph. The veteran particularly shined under the spotlight at Bridgestone Arena.
Sportsnet Stats illuminated his remarkable playoff run in recent home games:
Sportsnet Stats @SNstats
As seen on @timandsid, Pekka Rinne’s performance in home games has launched the #Preds into the Stanley Cup Final https://t.co/UK4UWCqcxD
Despite his inexperience, Saros can make a compelling case for warranting playing time. The 22-year-old yielded 2.35 goals per game with a 92.3 save percentage in 19 of his 20 career starts this season. In his first appearance of the 2016-17 campaign, he saved 34 of 35 shots during a 5-1 victory over Pittsburgh.
The 5’11” reserve is also shorter than the typical NHL gatekeeper. Following Game 2’s relief outing—his first action since April 6—David Alter of The Athletic offered a fun fact:
David Alter @dalter
Juuse Saros becomes the first sub-6′ goaltender to appear in a Stanley Cup Finals game since 2011 Conn Smythe Trophy winner Tim Thomas.
Inserting a young, inexperienced goalie would never work. Except when it did for Matt Murray. Forced into the limelight last year, the 23-year-old has now earned Pittsburgh’s starting job over Marc-Andre Fleury.
Because of his strong play, Nashville’s shot advantage has gone for naught. By shielding 37 of his opponent’s 38 shots in Game 2, Murray earned his 20th career playoff victory in 28 games. He has surrendered just 11 scores in seven games since replacing Fleury during the conference final.
If he continues one of sports’ most spectacular early success stories, Pittsburgh’s burgeoning star goalie can mitigate his team’s flaws and steal two more victories. Yet Murray would prefer if the Penguins’ defense shouldered their share instead of forcing him clean up too much mess.