After Recovering From Bad Start, Nashville Dominated Defending Cup Champions For Much Of The Opener

By Sean Hartnett
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Throughout the playoffs, the 16th-seeded Nashville Predators have gained admirers due to their next-man-up mentality and suffocating brand of defense.

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Although the Predators lost Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday night, they showed how effective their possession-positive play can be against the mighty Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Predators quickly fell behind by three goals after P.K. Subban’s apparent series-opening goal was wiped off the board due to a contentious offsides review. Nashville carried the play for the opening 11 minutes, but mentally unraveled after the goal was taken off the board.

The visitors lost focus and fell into the trap of taking several ill-advised penalties, including James Neal being whistled for a mindless cross-checking penalty that set up a Penguins 5-on-3 advantage. In addition, there was times when Neal needlessly had his stick in the air and not on the ice, a repeated failure to provide a target for his defensemen to advance the puck. It was an awful night for No. 18 in white. He’s got to screw his head on straight for Game 2 on Wednesday.

Despite the nightmarish first period, the Predators charged back, gaining the lion’s share of the momentum in the second as they played keep away with the puck. Those who thought the own goal off Mattias Ekholm’s knee late in the first was going to finish Nashville obviously don’t much about this group’s ability to respond when the chips are down.

Nashville did an outstanding job of minimizing Pittsburgh’s home ice advantage for much of the night. Led by criminally underrated defenseman Roman Josi, the Predators limited the high-octane Penguins to just 12 total shots on goal in Game 1. There was plenty of excellent backchecking and denying of offensive zone entries by head coach Peter Laviolette’s players. PPG Paints Arena drifted into a tense and muted atmosphere as the game progressed.

“We weren’t very good,” Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan would later say. “So, when you’re playing a team like Nashville that has a balanced attack, you’ve got to have some pushback. I don’t think in the second period we had any pushback.”

Predators, Penguins, Stanley Cup Final

Penguins goalie Matt Murray, center, defends against the Predators’ Vernon Fiddler during Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on May 29, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Matt Kincaid/Getty Images)

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The Predators eventually lost 5-3, but they showed they’re for real despite not having a Stanley Cup champion on their roster and a collective total of five games of Final experience heading into Monday’s opener. Nashville was the territorially-dominant team and held Pittsburgh to zero shots on goal in the middle period. The effort marked the first time in Stanley Cup history that a team held an opponent shot-less in a period since the NHL began tracking SOG during the 1957-58 season.

Sullivan made a big call by dressing rookie forward Jake Guentzel over playoff-hardened winger Carl Hagelin. The move paid off in spades. Guentzel steamed down ice and ripped a top-corner shot over Pekka Rinne’s glove hand with 3:17 left in regulation. Prior to the game-winning goal, Rinne had been out of rhythm, having not been tested with a puck on net for over 37 minutes.

“He’s a real good player,” Sullivan said of Guentzel. “He gets a great goal for us tonight. I think that’s an indication of the type of player that he is and his capability. But certainly, I think he’s a guy that we know we can rely on here to help us win games.”

Guentzel has tasted tremendous success in his first postseason, recording 17 points in 20 games. The 22-year-old’s 10 goals lead the 2017 postseason and trail only Jeremy Roenick (11 goals in 1990) for the most playoff goals by an American-born rookie.

Eminem famously rapped: “You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow. This opportunity comes once in a lifetime.”

The Penguins were getting schooled on the ice like a rap battle contestant flubbing their lines at the crucial moment. But then a young MC in Guentzel rose to the occasion. He took his one shot of the night and won the game.

“Just trying to get the ‘D’ out of the screen,” Guentzel said. “Hadn’t taken a shot in a while, so just trying to get on net and see what happened from there.”

While it was Game 1 jubilation for the Pens, there will be plenty of positives for Laviolette and his players to emphasize when they go through the game tape. If the Predators can clean up some of their miscues and control Game 2 with a similar effort, they’ll have a good shot at evening this series.

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Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey