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Predators centers have stepped up, leaving Penguins defense overmatched

Nashville's rag-tag group of pivots have gotten the better of the Penguins stars, and now the series returns to Pittsburgh as a best-of-three.

NASHVILLE – The fact that there are two full days between Games 4 and 5 of the Stanley Cup final is a big win for the Pittsburgh Penguins. And if you’re the Penguins these days, you’re taking all the victories you can find.

You could argue that if not for about 10 minutes of bad play and some leaky goaltending in the first two games of the series, Nashville Predators captain Mike Fisher might very well have been skating around the Bridgestone Arena ice carrying a 35-pound trophy with We Are The Champions playing in the background Monday night. Through the first four games of the Stanley Cup final, the Predators have been the better team. But now, thanks to the hockey gods and the fact that the Penguins have enough talent to occasionally win when they have no business doing so, this series has become a best-of-three with the Penguins having home ice advantage.

And with two full days off before they play again, the Penguins have an extra day to figure out what they’re going to do to try to turn this series around. They have another day to hope for a miracle comeback by Kris Letang (not happening) or to try to convince assistant coach Sergei Gonchar to come out of retirement (hey, there’s an idea worth considering). The Predators won Game 4 Monday night not only because their goaltender played better than the guy at the other end of the ice, but because they overmatched the Penguins in almost every aspect of the game. The Predators were as dogged as they’ve been all series on the puck and gave the Penguins very little room to work, smothering them at every turn and jumping on and exploiting their weakened defense corps. When the Penguins did have a flurry or managed to get a forward behind the Predators’ aggressive defense corps, Pekka Rinne was there to save them.

One of the key factors to this point has been that without Letang, the Penguins defense corps has gradually been weakened to the point where it’s looking now as though it’s hopelessly overmatched. It took a lot longer than a lot of people thought, but it’s clear that there are too few people in this group who can step up and fill the breach. The Predators, meanwhile, lost their top center in Ryan Johansen and have filled the void with a committee consisting of Colton Sissons, Mike Fisher, Calle Jarnkrok and Frederick Gaudreau. (Coach Peter Laviolette’s decision to take Vern Fiddler out of the lineup and move Gaudreau from wing to center on the fourth line was a complete game changer. Might have been the most pivotal move of the series.)

So Johansen gets hurt and is named Honorary Mayor for a Day on Monday, while the understudies go out and win the game.

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“You’re at a point in the season where you sink or swim,” Laviolette said. “Guys have to step up. Colton has got to step up, Calle’s got to step up, ‘Jarnie’ has to step up. Freddy Gaudreau jumps in and he has to step up because if he doesn’t, it makes it very difficult to move forward. We need guys to continue to play the game at a high level because of where we’re at in the season right now.”

Where the Predators are right now is two games away from hoisting the Stanley Cup, which will be in the house Sunday night for Game 6 regardless of who wins Game 5. And they’re doing it with a guy who turned 37 on Monday (Fisher), a castoff who was never drafted (Gaudreau), a guy who was acquired for David Legwand (Jarnkrok) and a guy who has a career average of one goal every 8.38 games (Sissons).

“Really, it’s the way we play as a team,” Fisher said. “Whoever is in there, if we play a certain way, we know we can be successful. We have to continue to get better in this series because we know it’s not getting any easier. There’s no question we have to, as the center group, be even better. We know who we’re facing. We’re going to keep doing that. That’s our focus.”

At the beginning of the series, it would have been outlandish to expect this rag-tag group of pivots to get the better of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. (It would really, really help if Nick Bonino could play and contribute, by the way.) If you had projected before the series that the Penguins defense corps would be exposed, well, give yourself a pat on the back because that’s exactly what’s happening.

“They’re not perfect by any stretch,” Sullivan said of his blueline corps. “But these guys are competing. I believe that they’re doing their very best to help us at both ends of the rink.”

Sullivan also called his group of defensemen “a simple bunch.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement, is it? Well, this simple bunch is going to have to come up with a simple plan to be a lot better or the Penguins will lose their grip on the Stanley Cup.


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