Rattled after a series opener straight out of The Twilight Zone? Hardly. The Predators are no strangers to adversity and expect a major rebound in Game 2.
PITTSBURGH – The Nashville Predators took the ice for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup with five games of previous final experience, all belonging to captain Mike Fisher. The Pittsburgh Penguins, meanwhile, had 14 players who competed and triumphed in last year’s final alone. While Nashville will never be the seasoned team in this series, every member of its starting lineup has that first notch in his belt now. One game of Cup final experience. The question is what, if anything, the Predators learned in their 5-3 defeat Monday night.
“There were no surprises,” said defenseman P.K. Subban during Tuesday’s off-day media availability. “Playoff hockey as usual. There was a lot of anticipation. We had some days off, and we’d been kind of champing at the bit to get at it. But I think the game was what everybody expected from an intensity standpoint. Maybe not from the score and the way the game went, but I thought it was a good hockey game, especially from an entertainment standpoint. I’m sure a lot of fans were happy about that.”
An interesting comment given Game 1 was one of the stranger playoff contests in recent memory. Subban had a goal disallowed in the first period after a coach’s challenge revealed Filip Forsberg to be a hair offside. And in the second half of a nightmarish period for Nashville, the Preds took two penalties and yielded three goals in five minutes, the last on an own-goal deflection off D-man Mattias Ekholm. Nashville then mounted a furious comeback in the second and third periods only to have the 3-3 tie wiped away when the first shot Pekka Rinne faced in about 37 minutes, courtesy of Jake Guentzel, went in.
So it’s fascinating to see the Preds treating the series opener just like any other game. Maybe they’re poker-facing to perfection. Or maybe they’re breathing easy because they’ve made a living surprising people all post-season. They swept the Chicago Blackhawks. They lost first-line center Ryan Johansen to a major injury, then watched Colton Sissons slide in and rifle off a hat trick in Game 6 of the Western Conference final versus the Anaheim Ducks. Nothing seems to spook Nashville. And coach Peter Laviolette was quick to brush off any notion his team looked green or shaky in that wild first period of Game 1. To him, it was merely a series of unfortunate events.
“It just didn’t go our way,” Laviolette said. “I don’t think we were rattled. That last goal was tough, where it goes off Ekholm’s shin guard and in. It’s a nothing play, it’s not a scoring chance, and that pushed it to 3-0. I don’t think we played poorly at all through the game. That being said, we lost the game. We sit here, and they’re up 1-0 and we’re down 0-1. So we’ve got to be better. We’ve got to put the hammer on the gas pedal and make sure we’re ready to get after it.”
And Laviolette added Tuesday he believes his team is battle hardened after overcoming a rocky start to the 2016-17 season. The Preds won three of their first 11 games and climbed out of that hole, but it still prevented them from challenging for a Central Division crown. They crept into the playoffs as a No. 16 seed and are the first 16 seed ever to reach the final. When you think of all the strange feats the Predators have accomplished this spring, it begins to make sense that they can brush off Game 1’s strange happenings with relative ease.
“The attitude in the dressing room, I mean, we go down 3-0, we come back in, everybody has something to say,” Subban said. “Anybody that’s ever played professional sports… it’s easy in a Stanley Cup game to come back in the room, everybody is quiet, nerves. But that’s not our hockey club. We know how good we can be. The way we responded was typical Nashville Predators.
“We’ve had adversity earlier on in the playoffs. We responded well. I go back to the Chicago series. I think it was Game 3, we were down 2-0. We found a way to come back against a Stanley Cup championship team. We did that again yesterday. We just didn’t finish it off.”
So there’s obviously reason for optimism after erasing a 3-0 lead and holding hockey’s top offensive team shotless for roughly two periods. There’s a strong case to be made Nashville was the superior team in Game 1.
Not that it means the Preds can duplicate their effort and expect to win Game 2. The Penguins can’t possibly play that badly on offense again. They’ll be much better, too, and the Preds have to be prepared for that.
“We expect a big push from them,” said Predators defenseman Ryan Ellis. “We’re going to have to be even better. We know that wasn’t their ‘A’ game. We’re going to see a lot better from them. Hopefully we can continue to do the right things and get better.”
Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin combined for one shot on goal in Game 1. That’s not happening again, unless Nashville has cracked some secret code to play the best defensive hockey in Stanley Cup history. The Preds have to counterpunch with their best, most disciplined selves Wednesday, as we’re almost certain to see a better, feistier Pittsburgh team take the ice.
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