PITTSBURGH – Pekka Rinne stood in the Nashville Predators’ locker room after sitting on their bench for 40 minutes in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final. He was pulled, for the second time in two games in Pittsburgh, after giving up three goals on nine shots.
The rout started early. Sidney Crosby drew a penalty 50 seconds in the game, and then assisted on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ first goal on the power play. Later, Phil Kessel fed Evgeni Malkin for the hope-shattering third goal, less than 11 seconds before the end of the first period. It was the last puck that would fly by Rinne on Thursday night.
“They seemed to have a lot of stuff going for them,” the veteran goalie lamented after the 6-0 loss.
“Their stars were their best players.”
The hallmark of this Penguins Stanley Cup run, which resides one win away from a second straight championship, is the team’s unshakable belief that their best players will always come through when it’s necessary.
The play of Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury in Round 1 against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Crosby and Fleury in Game 7 against the Washington Capitals. Crosby and Matt Murray in Games 4 and 7 against the Ottawa Senators. And last night, Crosby and Malkin and Murray and Phil Kessel all contributing to an emphatic, important win: Instead of facing elimination where the Predators are 9-1 this postseason, it’s Nashville staring into the abyss.
Because of them, there’s a poise and an inherent confidence that infuses this roster. That the team can overcome the loss of their best defenseman for the duration of the postseason. That the team can overcome two straight losses to their arch rivals and then win a Game 7 on the road. That one of them will make a play to win a subsequent Game 7 in double-overtime, as Crosby did to set up Chris Kunitz’s game-winner against Ottawa.
That when Evgeni Malkin sits in his locker 24 hours before Game 5, the series tied 2-2, and mumbles “it’s time to score” when asked about Phil Kessel’s offense, it’s less a command to a teammate than a declaration of fact. It was time for Malkin, time for Kessel. They sensed it. The Penguins sensed it.
In Crosby’s case, Game 5 might have clinched the Conn Smythe if the Penguins win. His three assists give him 27 points in 23 games, one behind Malkin but with identical points per game numbers (1.17). But it was the meteoric force with which he started Game 5 that set the tempo – skating twice as fast as anyone on the ice, and making something happen every time he was near the puck. The Penguins take the cue from the captain, and he led by example.
“There’s a lot of competitive guys, but I don’t think there are a lot of guys who can raise their level to where he gets to,” said teammate Matt Cullen. “When he senses the opportunity, it’s unlike anything I’ve seen, the way he steps up and raises his level. He just gets to a completely different level.”
Herein lies the problem for the Nashville Predators, as they head home facing elimination:
They don’t have an offensive player, or a line, that can level-up like that.
They did, earlier in the playoffs.
The Ryan Johansen line with Vitkor Arvidsson and Filip Forsberg was the best in the postseason, full-stop. Through Game 4 of the Western Conference Final, Johansen had 13 points in 14 games; Forsberg had 12 in 14; Arvidsson had 10 in 14. They were incredible, pace-setting players for the Predators in each round.
But then they lost Johansen to that freakish ailment that necessitated emergency surgery after Game 4. That broke up the line, and against the Penguins we’re really seeing the impact.
Consider these games in Pittsburgh. Johansen had nine points in seven playoff road games. In Pittsburgh, for his career, Johansen has nine points in 12 games overall with the Predators and Columbus Blue Jackets. As bad as Pekka Rinne’s been in the Steel City, Johansen had been quite good. They could have used him.
You watch a game like Game 5 and see the need for a line like that. What if Johansen was there, and his line could steady the ship with a strong shift in the offensive zone, or with a goal to counter those from the Penguins? For it’s that kind of intangible that the Predators have lacked in three road games here. When your goalie lets you down, you need someone else to pick you up.
Arvidsson has points in three games of this series. Forsberg, however, has failed to convert good underlying numbers into goals on the scoreboard. His lone point in the series is an empty netter in Game 4.
It’s hard to kill either guy considering the circumstances, but in Forsberg’s case it’s hard to square the praise Peter Laviolette heaped on him with his current trend on the stats sheet: “He’s really shown himself as somebody who wants to be the guy on the front of the rope pulling it, a leader,” said the coach earlier in the series.
One only needs to look across the ice to see what that actually looks like.
All of this is to say that it sucks that Johansen missed this dance. With very, very few exceptions, teams that lack a star center or one hot scoring line do not win the Stanley Cup. The Predators had both, and now they have neither; and facing elimination, one can’t help but begin to wonder what might have been.
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