PITTSBURGH – “We weren’t very good,” said Mike Sullivan and he wasn’t kidding.
The Stanley Cup Final opened with a bit of history for his Pittsburgh Penguins, but it wasn’t the sort they had in mind. The 37-minute stretch Pittsburgh went without registering a shot against the Nashville Predators on Monday night was the longest ever in the NHL’s championship series – at least since they started tracking such things in 1957-58.
The fact the Penguins prevailed 5-3 despite only firing 12 total shots on goal established a new low for a winning team in a Cup final game.
“It’s not textbook,” said captain Sidney Crosby.
It was a strange start to this series, one where the answer to the debate about who would come out on top in a battle between Pittsburgh’s dangerous forwards and Nashville’s stout defence corps was actually … both.
Crosby made a couple nice plays to set up goals 65 seconds apart in the first period, with Evgeni Malkin providing the finish during a 5-on-3 advantage.
However, the Predators had no trouble finding encouragement from the fact they kept goaltender Pekka Rinne completely out of harm’s way while turning a 3-0 deficit at the first intermission into a 3-3 tie with seven minutes to play in regulation.
“From the way we started and the way we continued on after that, I thought our guys played great,” said Nashville coach Peter Laviolette. “I thought we played a good game. We hate the score. We hate the result. But we’ll move forward.”
Who would have thought the first team to fire a salvo in this series would do it by barely firing a shot?
The Penguins sat at eight when Nick Bonino harmlessly one-handed the puck towards Rinne and saw the Predators goalie accidentally direct it in off the shin pad of defenceman Mattias Ekholm with 17 seconds to play in the first period.
The next one didn’t arrive until Jake Guentzel broke free on the wing and beat him high with a lightning-fast release at 16:43 of the third period.
During the intervening period, the mood on the Penguins bench had turned to something approaching despair. The defending champs were acutely aware that they weren’t at their best and they’d seen the Predators roar back and tie things up with third-period goals from Colton Sissons and Frederick Gaudreau.
“We were yelling at everybody to shoot the puck,” said Penguins winger Conor Sheary. “Rinne hadn’t seen one in awhile and maybe that caught him by surprise when Jake shot that.”
Rinne finished with seven saves on 11 shots. Bonino added an empty-net goal after he had been pulled for an extra attacker.
Arguably the Conn Smythe favourite entering this final series, the Predators goalie acknowledged that it was tough to go through such a long stretch with so little action.
“It was a weird, weird game,” said Rinne. “I don’t know. At this point in the season, you try to stay in the game no matter what and try to play the puck and stop the rims and whatever it takes to stay in the game.
“But, yeah, it was a challenging, challenging night.”
A week had passed since Nashville wrapped up the Western Conference Final, but it showed no obvious signs of rust. The Preds pushed the pace early and appeared to open the scoring thanks to P.K. Subban – only to have the goal reversed because of an extremely close offsides review on Filip Forsberg.
That ended up taking some wind out of their sails.
Still, they controlled the puck for long stretches after Pittsburgh exploded for three quick goals.
“We didn’t play a great first period and we came in up 3-0,” said Sheary.
Strange night, indeed.
Never before in the 50-year history of the Penguins had they won a game while registering 12 shots or less. There may be no style points when you’re this close to lifting the Stanley Cup for a second straight spring, but they were under no illusions about what went on here.
It was the kind of game where you could listen to players from both teams speak afterwards and not truly be sure who won.
Someone tried to float the idea to Crosby that Pittsburgh showed the heart of a champion by persevering through a power outage and getting the job done despite a paucity of chances. He wasn’t buying it.
“I don’t know if we’re saying the same thing, if Jake doesn’t get that goal, about a championship team if they give up a three-goal lead, right?” said Crosby. “We found a way. We were kind of stuck there for a little bit without getting shots and things like that, but we found a way.
“I think the real test, the real challenge, will be how we bounce back and how we improve and how we’re better.”
This certainly won’t be good enough in Game 2.