NASHVILLE - The Nashville Predators are smart enough to know that the Pittsburgh Penguins have some serious talent beyond Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. But they also know that shutting those players down and cutting the head off that snake will go a long way toward driving a stake into the heart of their opponent in the Stanley Cup final.
Take Game 3, for instance. The Predators managed to hold Crosby and Malkin to zero shots – Malkin, in fact, didn’t even have a shot attempt – and the Penguins were held to one goal. Keeping the clamps on Crosby will obviously have an adverse effect on Jake Guentzel, who leads the playoffs in goals with 13. And Phil Kessel just looks lost so far in the final so he’s not even a factor at the moment.
Even worse for the Penguins, it appears they’re starting to get frustrated. Predators defenseman P.K. Subban said Crosby made a comment about his bad breath late in Game 2. (And Crosby would know. Subban has been going nose-to-nose with Crosby for much of the series.) And after having a rally towel tossed at him after the game, Malkin made a motion with his stick before checking his swing.
“I’m sure it doesn’t feel good over there,” said Predators center Colton Sissons.
There are no real surprises when it gets to this stage of the season. Just as the Predators are disadvantaged by the absences of Ryan Johansen and Kevin Fiala, the Penguins are hobbled by the loss of defenseman Kris Letang, particularly on what has become an absolutely putrid power play. That leaves a lot up to the likes of Crosby and Malkin, who are the drive train that power the Pittsburgh offense.
“They kind of come as advertised,” said Predators defenseman Ryan Ellis. “Highly skilled, an attack-first team that goes north with the puck a lot. In the zone, they’re always moving. We knew what to expect and they’re doing exactly what they thought. Every team has their go-to guys and (Crosby and Malkin) are big parts of their team at both ends of the ice. For us, it’s just about just five men up the ice and five men back, doing our jobs and limiting them the best we can.”
Of course, this is nothing new for the Predators. In their first-round sweep of the Chicago Blackhawks, they held the superstar tandem of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews to a total of two goals and four points. In the second round against the St. Louis Blues, Vladimir Tarasenko scored just two goals and an assist in six games, with both of his goals coming in the same game. And in the Western Conference final against the Anaheim Ducks, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry combined for just two goals and four assists in six games. Going into the series, Getzlaf was a leading contender for the Conn Smythe Trophy.
Doing that is actually a two-part process. The first part of it is obvious. You have to defend well against these guys. As good and as prominent as Nashville’s defense corps is, that requires a five-man effort, something the Predators have done well by getting on the Penguins skaters early. It’s far more difficult for a team to transition to a speed game if their players constantly have someone in their face as they try to bring the puck up the ice. But the other part of it has to do with what the Predators do with the puck when they have it. They have to take care of it and not turn it over, particularly against a team as dangerous as the Penguins are. And that’s what the Predators were talking about when they said they had to clean up some of the parts of their game. You’ll notice that the Penguins weren’t near as dangerous in Game 3 as they were in the first two games because they weren’t feasting on Nashville turnovers. As Subban said, the team that makes more mistakes is almost always the one that finds itself on the losing end of the game.
“Everybody has got to win his battle and win the game within the game,” Subban said. “You look across the ice and you have to beat the guy across the ice from you. The team that can win more of those battles should be the team that comes out on top of the ultimate battle of winning the hockey game. Yesterday I felt we won more of the battles and that’s why we came out on top.”