PITTSBURGH – It was the kind of period you imagine a nervous newbie conjures in his head sleeping in his hotel the night before his first Stanley Cup game. Picture Mattias Ekholm, waking up in a cold sweat. It was awful, he’d think. The crowd was so loud. We had a lead and got a goal disallowed. Then we started bleeding goals. One even bounced off me and into my own net.
It was a cartoonishly bad opening frame for a Nashville team that entered Game 1 of the final with just one player, Mike Fisher, who had ever advanced past the third round of the playoffs.
P.K. Subban’s opening goal got called back on a coach’s challenge after it was revealed Filip Forsberg’s leg lifted up ever so slightly when he gained the zone, and the Preds looked as green as could be after that, rattled from the call, taking two undisciplined penalties at once, landing Call Jarnkrok and James Neal in the box.
“It was a tough one in the first when Subby’s got called back there,” Neal said. “We had the momentum. We were pushing it. We just had a little letdown, and they scored right after that.”
The Penguins converted on the 5-on-3 with an Evgeni Malkin goal. Then Conor Sheary tapped in a picture-perfect feed from Chris Kunitz. Next came the own goal, directed off Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne’s stick right into Ekholm. The blitz all happened in the last five minutes of the first, giving Pittsburgh a 3-0 lead after 20 minutes. Rinne appeared jittery, stopping just five of eight shots.
Then something happened. Nashville settled down. Ryan Ellis buried a slapshot on the power play to narrow the lead to 3-1 in the second. The Predators then became the first team in Stanley Cup final history, at least since the NHL began tracking shots on goal in 1957-58, to hold an opponent without a shot in a period. The suddenly impregnable Preds kept Pittsburgh from recording a shot on goal for 37 minutes. In doing so, Nashville bought itself time to mount a full comeback in the third, starting with a Colton Sissons goal at 10:06, followed by a Frederick Gaudreau equalizer at 13:29.
Nashville had shown impressive resolve, grinding back on the road. The problem: Rinne, who was already fighting the puck, didn’t see a shot for almost two full periods. By the time he did, it was a laser of a wrister from Jake Guentzel, and it ate Rinne up. Pittsburgh reclaimed the lead on the first shot Rinne saw in about two hours, then added an empty netter to seal a 5-3 Game 1 victory. It was a bizarre game, especially for Rinne, who needed a lot of self-talk to stay engaged while he waited for a puck to stop.
“You just focus on the next shot,” he said. “You keep reminding yourself to stay sharp, trying to get ready for the next one. But it was a different game. I can’t remember trying to face that kind of game before.”
But Rinne didn’t want to make excuses. He was completely accountable. Instead of shrinking into his dressing room stall after the game, he stood up in the middle of the visitors’ room and weathered the storm of reporters. No one was harder on Rinne than Rinne.
“At the end of the day, it’s my job just to make the save,” he said. “At the end of the game, I’m disappointed that I couldn’t help my team. We showed a lot of character. I thought we played a great game. We have a lot of things we can take away from this game. A lot of positives in just the way we played overall. And that’s a very opportunistic team and high-skill team.”
On paper it was a loss with a lot of moments Nashville wants to forget. But holding the defending champs, the highest-scoring team in the regular season and playoffs, without a shot for almost two periods is an impossible statistic to ignore. It’s something the Predators can take away from Game 1 as an extreme positive.
So it’s a loss. But Nashville had to endure a disallowed goal, a 5-on-3, an own goal and a bizarre stretch in which its goalie saw no action for two thirds of a game. The general temperature of the team after the Game 1: not defeated and well aware of how much went well Monday.
“Our guys played well from start to finish,” said Predators coach Peter Laviolette. “The third goal was tough. It's not really even a scoring chance, and it goes off of our defenseman’s shin guard in the net. That pushed the score 3-0. From the way we started and the way we continued on after that, our guys played great. We played a good game. We hate the score. We hate the result. But we'll move forward.”
But if Nashville can’t make a good effort amount to a ‘W’ in Game 2, the bad luck in Game 1 will feel more like an excuse.
“It was pretty strange,” Josi said. “I thought we played a really good game and probably deserved better in this game, but it’s a great team over there. They know how to win. So we’ve got to look forward and correct some things.”
THE LATEST HOCKEY NEWS PODCAST: