NASHVILLE, Tenn. – There is a paradox baked into this entire equation.
The Nashville Predators got hammered in Game 5 – putting their entire season on the line – and yet have reason to feel Zen amid the bubbling chaos around them. The Pittsburgh Penguins are one victory away from lifting the Stanley Cup and you know what?
No matter who you are, it just feels different when you’re that close to something you want so badly.
“Definitely keep it in the box,” James Neal said Saturday of the Predators mindset ahead of Game 6.
You look at the calendar right now and you can’t believe it’s June 10. There’s still hockey to be played and Phil Pritchard will be whisking Lord Stanley into the bowels of Bridgestone Arena on Sunday night.
The dirty little secret of the Stanley Cup Final is that everyone wants it to be over.
Well, everyone that is, but the Predators and the estimated crowd of 150,000 that is expected to watch the game outside the arena.
It’s just that the grind is real now. This is at once the absolute best and most challenging time of your life, especially if you’re one of the men battling for the puck along the boards or fighting for space in the slot. Not to mention all the stick work.
“This scheduling helps,” said Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne. “A good recover day, and then a work day. In the playoffs, your mindset is different than in the regular season. A lot of times in the regular season, if things aren’t going your way one night, you take that with you and worry about it.
“But in the playoffs … this is our opportunity.”
As much as this trophy is won on the ice it is won in the mind. Nashville carried the play through a huge portion of the first four games of this series and laid an egg in Game 5 on Thursday night. They let Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel combine for eight points.
However, despite now trailing 3-2 in the series, the Predators seemed anything but burdened by their situation. Rinne, a Finn who was pulled after 20 minutes the last time out, even did the following lighthearted interview with Swedish broadcaster Viasat:
Q: How do you feel about all of the Swedes going after each other in this series?
Rinne: “I’m a little surprised, to be honest with you. It’s great to see though – Swedes killing each other on the ice, so I love that.”
Q: Who won the fight between Viktor Arvidsson and Carl Hagelin in Game 5?
Rinne: “I’d like to say Arvi because he got the last sucker-punch in. I mean that was awesome.”
This was not the mark of a nervous person. Even after an 11-year NHL career and the 103 games Nashville has played since the start of the season, he was smiling and joking in the face of potential heartbreak.
There is a belief that a return to Bridgestone Arena, where the Predators are 33-18 in 2016-17, will mean a return to form. Part of the message from coach Peter Laviolette is that they simply need to be more like themselves to force a Game 7.
“I know our guys don’t sit in there and wonder how we’re going to do this,” Laviolette said. “I think we’re an extremely confident group, and we’ve had a lot of success, especially down the stretch in the regular season through the playoffs.
“We’ve found a certain way to play the game with a certain identity and, when we do that, usually the wins follow.”
Even with Thursday’s lopsided 6-0 loss, the Predators have still managed to control 55.8 per cent of the even-strength shot attempts in the series. They’ve put themselves in position for more success than they’ve had.
The challenge is finding a way to dig down and bring their best with everything on the line. They have to keep Crosby, Malkin and Co. from an apparent date with history. They need to help Rinne turn back into Nashville Pekka from Pittsburgh Pekka.
“We’ve been doing this for 100 games,” said winger Filip Forsberg, held to just one goal in the series. “You’re preparing. It’s been working. We’re there for a reason. We’re playing hockey in June.
“It’s honestly a privilege and at the same time it’s a lot on the line, but you just do what you’ve been doing.”
Sunday looms as a special day. The NHL secured country music star Luke Bryan to play a song from the rooftop of Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge across the street from the rink before puck drop. Nashville will be ready to party, and hoping to keep the Penguins from having their own celebration.