PITTSBURGH — Pekka Rinne was the odds-on favourite to win the Conn Smythe coming into the Stanley Cup Final based on his play through three rounds this spring. Even Don Cherry designated him the frontrunner.
After two games in Pittsburgh, all that good work and tire-pumping seems like a long time ago for the Nashville goaltender.
Though Rinne was the key player on the Predators in these playoffs, P.K. Subban was their biggest story. It’s not fair to say that his was a quest for redemption after being traded out of Montreal a year ago — it was just a scenario that he could only dream of when it came to sticking it to his critics. After two games, well, that scenario is threatening to come completely undone.
The Pittsburgh Penguins’ 4-1 victory over Nashville Wednesday night had the Western Conference champions looking for explanations and consolation, which occasionally overlapped.
“I thought we played a strong game and created a lot of chances the first two periods especially,” Rinne said. “[After two periods] it’s a tight game, obviously. A quick goal, a couple of odd-man rushes in a row, a bit unfortunate on the second [goal] and then [Evgeni] Malkin buried the one [that made it 4-1]. And that was the game.”
The quick goal was Jake Guentzel’s second game-winner in the Cup Final. The lucky one for the Penguins was credited to Scott Wilson but was basically kicked in by Nashville’s Vernon Fiddler. And Malkin’s was wired in the top corner on the glove side, spelling the end of Rinne’s night. He was pulled in favour of backup Juuse Saros.
The three goals came in a flurry that took only slightly longer than Rinne needed to summarize it. The game went from a 1-1 tie in which the Predators had an advantage in play, both territorial advantage and shots on goal, to a 4-1 hole in three and a half minutes.
“It’s very disappointing,” Rinne said, trying to stay stoic about his team’s prospects heading to Nashville. “I treat this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I’ve played for a long time and this is the first time playing for a Cup.”
In his statement of purpose, Rinne might have provided a cause for Pittsburgh’s wins: It’s once in Rinne’s lifetime but not so for most of the Penguins. A bunch of players are holdovers from last year’s team that hoisted the Cup. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz lifted the Cup back in ’09 as well.
The Predators outplayed the home team by a ridiculous margin in Game 1 and yet ended up with an L. Game 2 featured a fair bit more give and take through two periods, but still the game mostly trended in Nashville’s favour. The Predators were quicker to the puck on the forecheck and more creative when they had possession in the offensive zone — and for the Penguins it was a seen-it-all-before proposition, never breaking down having been there and done that.
That point wasn’t lost on Subban. “That’s a championship team in there,” he said. “They know how to win. At the end of the day you have to work hard to get bounces. They work hard and get bounces. You have to give them credit. They capitalized on mistakes. We’ve got guys in here who are learning. We’re going to learn from our mistakes and get better.”
Subban was speaking in the future tense but the Predators can’t afford more than a couple of practices to digest those teachable moments and raise their play.
For Rinne’s part, he talked about having to forget about his performances in Pittsburgh — four goals on 11 shots through 59 minutes in Game 1 and a goal every 70 seconds to start the third.
“You have to bury these two games and move ahead,” the goaltender said.
And therein lies the challenge for the Predators and the conundrum: figuring out a way to learn from the losses and then wiping out all memory of the source of the knowledge.
You wouldn’t put it past the Predators to win in Nashville, level the series and throw a scare into the defending champions. That seems not as far-fetched as, say, the Predators as a wild card sweeping top-seed Chicago with Rinne surrendering only three goals in the process. And you could see Subban desperate to shake things up, dropping the gloves with Malkin late in the third period after a verbal exchange.
Rinne winning the Conn Smythe and Subban giving the Canadiens trader’s remorse: Stranger things have happened … in fact they’ve already happened this week.