By Sean Hartnett
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The Pittsburgh Penguins captured Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final without playing anything close to their A-game. It was a totally different case in Game 2.
The Penguins’ dominant pedal-to-the floor approach Wednesday night lasted for 60 minutes and resulted in a 4-1 victory, leaving the Predators in a big hole and no doubt who the better team is as the series shifts to Bridgestone Arena in Nashville for Game 3 and 4.
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin long ago set the standard for homegrown talent in the Steel City, but a fresh-faced rookie is currently the talk of the town. Jake Guentzel is writing his name into Stanley Cup Playoffs lore.
The 22-year-old forward’s Conn Smythe Trophy stock is rising rapidly. Despite entering the playoffs with only 40 career regular season games under his belt, Guentzel has led the charge for the Penguins with a playoff-high 12 goals.
Guentzel notched the game-winning goal in Games 1 and 2 of the Final, and his five winners this postseason is a rookie record. He trails only Dino Ciccarelli for the most goals by a rookie in single postseason. Ciccarelli recorded 14 in 19 games for the Cup runner-up Minnesota North Stars in 1981.
“It’s winning puck battles. It’s the wall play. It’s gaining lines. It’s taking what the game gives you,” Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said. “When the plays are there, (Guentzel’s) instincts will take over. He’s a real talented kid. So, we just tried to shift the focus a little bit with him. We tried to cut his minutes because he was playing a lot of minutes. This is his first year pro, coming out of college, where he’s not used to playing the NHL schedule, and the demands of that physically, not to mention a long playoff run. So, we just thought if we cut his minutes, we’d get more productive minutes from him.
“I think he’s had an opportunity to get a little bit of a second wind,” Sullivan added. “He’s getting his legs back. I think his confidence is there. You can see how good of a player he is. We can move him up and down the lineup. We thought he was having a good game tonight. We moved him up with Sid. Thought they had a solid game.”
No American rookie has ever recorded more goals or points (19) in a single postseason. Guentzel’s go-ahead goal 10 seconds into the third period slammed the door shut on Game 2. The Predators looked like a shaken team and discombobulated in their own end.
Pekka Rinne, Nashville’s No. 1 goalie, is now 0-7-2 in his career against Pittsburgh. Rinne surrendered four goals on 25 shots in Game 2 after stopping only seven of 11 in the opener. The 34-year-old netminder has a .778 save percentage in the Final after posting a .945 mark over the first three series.
Backup Juuse Saros replaced Rinne following Guentzel’s early third-period goal. Predators head coach Peter Laviolette was noncommittal about his Game 3 starter, despite being asked twice during his postgame press conference.
“Pekka has been terrific through this entire playoffs,” Laviolette said. “Like I said, I think there’s things we can do better. All three goals in the third period, we could have done something better. We’re leaving them odd man-numbered rushes. I believe all of them were odd, three-on-twos and two-on-ones makes it more difficult.”
One player that can change the tenor of this series is Predators defenseman P.K. Subban. The offense-generating blue liner made a bold prediction following Game 3.
“Right away, the focus shifts to we don’t lose in our building,” Subban told Greg Wyshynski of Yahoo! Puck Daddy. “So, we’re going back home. We’re going to win the next game and we’ll see what happens from there.”
Subban savors the spotlight. Expressive off the ice as well as on it, the 28-year-old excels at moving the puck. His excellent skating, cannon shot, creativity on the power play, and ability to deliver bone-crushing hits can swing the momentum in any game. The Predators desperately need more of Subban’s swagger.
The Predators aren’t of this series yet, but they sure need more from their aces, Subban, Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson and Roman Josi. Nashville absolutely needs to come out with a frenzied energy in its house on Saturday night.
Any chance of a series turnaround starts with desperate hockey.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey