PITTSBURGH – They will wait for you to beat yourself. The patient Pittsburgh Penguins are content to stay steady on the rudder with confidence that a game will eventually bend in their favour.
For huge chunks of Game 2 it looked as though they were merely surviving.
The boat was taking on some water – the Nashville Predators fired six shots on goal in one frantic 17-second stretch – but it never capsized.
Then the puck was dropped to start the third period and the Penguins pounced. Three goals past poor Pekka Rinne in the opening 3:28 and suddenly you have a comfortable 4-1 victory from a Pittsburgh team now two wins short of lifting the Stanley Cup again.
"We’ve got some talented players on this team so any time we can get them into some open ice good things happen," said defenceman Ian Cole.
They don’t need much to break your heart. The Predators were wondering what hit them as they flew home in a 2-0 hole after Thursday’s game.
It was opportunistic rookie Jake Guentzel who once again delivered the damage, scoring twice to boost his playoff-leading goal total to 12. At the start of this season he wasn’t on the radar of his current teammates – Sidney Crosby didn’t know anything about him – and now the 22-year-old from Nebraska has worked his way into the Conn Smythe Trophy conversation.
"He seems pretty calm and cool on the outside," said Crosby. "Sitting next to him (in the dressing room), he seems like he’s really excited to be in the NHL. He’s willing to do anything. I mean he’s obviously contributing with scoring goals, but he really cares about doing well out there."
This Penguins team has developed a knack for defying gravity.
Lose all-world defenceman Kris Letang to a season-ending neck injury? No problem.
Come up against the Presidents’ Trophy winners in Round 2? See ya, Washington. Get pushed to double overtime in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final by the Pesky Sens? No sweat.
They’ve seen their possession numbers crater in Letang’s absence and have been routinely outshot during this playoff run. Even that hasn’t slowed them.
"Both of our goalies have done a great job of handling those shots, especially in some of these instances it’s heavy first periods where teams have come out hard and tried to throw a lot at the net," Crosby said after his team improved to 8-2 in playoff games in which they’ve been outshot.
Matt Murray certainly outplayed Rinne again in Game 2 with 31 saves by the second intermission. That set the table for a third-period explosion which had fans at PPG Paints Arena chanting "We want the Cup!" while Evgeni Malkin’s father, Vladimir, danced in the stands.
There is no guarantee we’ll even be back here for another game – although it’s worth pointing out that Pittsburgh was up 2-0 on San Jose in last year’s final and still needed six games to close it out.
The Penguins exude a quiet confidence and have enough experience to keep their minds from wandering too far. No one seemed interested in discussing how close they are to repeating as champions.
"I’m trying not to think about that," said Malkin. "Every win is closer to the Cup, but it’s still lots of work. We understand, you know, it’s not easy. We go to Nashville and it’s a hockey town, (great) crowd, and they play unbelievable at home.
"We need to work, we need to play better and win."
You can expect it to be a tough battle inside Bridgestone Arena on Sunday night. The stakes are incredibly high. And Game 2 essentially devolved into frontier justice.
Not long after P.K. Subban knocked Sidney Crosby to the ice, Chris Kunitz delivered a danger cross-check to the neck of the Predators defenceman. In the second period, Nashville agitator Cody McLeod slammed directly into Murray and wasn’t whistled for a penalty.
Once the game got out of reach, Subban and Malkin even dropped the gloves for a wrestling match.
"I like (him), he’s a good player," said Malkin. "He asked me ‘you want to fight?’ I don’t care. It was lots of emotion. Next game we forget that. It’s not my game to fight."
Above all, the Penguins know their game is good enough to win. Nashville may boast the most formidable blue line in the entire NHL, but Pittsburgh’s forwards are still an awful lot to handle.
"They work hard and they get bounces," said Subban. "We have to work twice as hard to make sure we sharpen up in those areas, making sure that we’re getting pucks in, pucks out and tightening up in our crease and making sure that we’re eliminating bodies. You’ve got to give them credit, they capitalized on mistakes, but for us we’ve done a lot of good things well.
"But this is the Stanley Cup Final, that’s the Stanley Cup champion over there, you can’t just play well. You have to be great to win at this point in time."
The series isn’t over, not yet. But the margin for error has been reduced dramatically.