Two decisions seal Predators’ fate in Game 1 loss to Penguins

The Penguins got off to a 3-0 lead but the Predators ties it up after Pittsburgh went 37 minutes without a shot. Unfortunately for Nashville, Jake Guentzel ended the shot drought with the game-winner as the Penguins took Game 1 5-3.

PITTSBURGH – It was just another one of those games in a Stanley Cup Final when a team goes 37 minutes without a shot and gets the W.

It was just another one of those games when you see defending Stanley Cup champions celebrate at the final horn and presume that there’s almost no way they can win another game in the series.

If you’ve seen one, you’ve … well, you saw the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 5-3 win over the Nashville Predators in the opening game of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final Monday night.

A thousand stories will be told about the Penguins’ improbable win over the Predators. None will properly explain how a team with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel manages to go almost two periods without a shot. The universe is a chaotic place. If things can happen, eventually they will. There have been precedents. Though I wasn’t there to see it, boxing legend Willie Pep, the old Will o’ the Wisp, once won a round in a fight without throwing a punch. Yeah, for the Penguins, it was a Willie Pep type of a night.

But know this, reader: All these stories would read much differently if it weren’t for a couple of decisions made off the ice.

Eight minutes into the first period, the Preds’ P.K. Subban let loose a wristshot from the right point. Goaltender Matt Murray didn’t really have much of a chance on the shot. Subban celebrated, Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin surely grieved and the barometric pressure inside PPG Paints Arena plunged.

That is, until Penguins coach Mike Sullivan challenged Subban’s goal on the basis that the Predators’ Filip Forsberg had entered the zone with the puck in an offside position. It wasn’t an insignificant decision on Sullivan’s part: gambling a timeout that might play a crucial role later. "We don’t want to use that challenge frivolously," Sullivan told the assembled media.

The Predators seemed puzzled—they had controlled the play long enough in the home team’s zone that they scarcely remembered exactly how they got there in the first place. The fans didn’t seem excited by the prospect either—at least until a grainy slow-motion replay appeared on the Jumbotron.

With these tired old eyes, I couldn’t tell definitively one way or another and that falls into the category of insufficient to overrule. The folks in the NHL video review war room saw it more clearly and more definitely than I did and scotched what would have been a one-goal lead for the visitors.

Look, I’m not so locked in the past to say that we should dispense with video replay entirely—I think it has its place on pucks crossing the line and goaltender interference. Those are material decisions directly leading to the scoring play.

I’m not going to say that the video review department had it wrong. I will say that the league has it wrong in opening a play like a distant missed offside call as grounds for overturning a goal. Game 1 in this final would be the case study that I’d submit in an argument for doing away with video review if I ever were to have my day in court.

Of course, I won’t. Commissioner Gary Bettman says that the league is sticking with its video review policy—I guess we’ll see. I’m sure that the waiting period for the decision to come down made for riveting television (in)action.

The struck-down goal didn’t seem such a big setback at the time. After all, Nashville had dominated action right up until that point and they continued to do the same for another five minutes or so.

What subsequently hurt the Predators’ chances—what had them playing catch up most of the night in a game that they territorially dominated—was an awful lapse in judgment by James Neal, who took a cross-checking penalty while the Penguins controlled the puck on a delayed penalty call. For no apparent good reason, Neal jammed the shaft into the kidneys or spleen of Pittsburgh defenceman Trevor Daley in full view of thousands sitting in the arena, millions watching at home and two guys with whistles empowered to send him to the box.

That gave the Penguins a 5-on-3 power play, one that took them a minute and a half to generate a shot, which happened to be a goal by Malkin. If it had only been Calle Jarnkrok sent off for interference on the play, the delayed call, it’s hard to imagine the Penguins would have mustered a shot.

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Subban did his best to put the game in perspective after the game. "If we just play the way we did, minus some of the mistakes that we made, I like our chances," he said without citing examples. Look, Preds goalie Pekka Rinne probably hasn’t had so lamentable a night but his luck was almost comically bad—still, the most egregious mistake was Neal’s cross-check.

A lot of folks in attendance said that they had never seen anything like it. Frankly it evoked a game not so long past: Game 4 in the Penguins’ series against Washington when, without Crosby in the lineup, they hung on to beat the Caps after being soundly, even ridiculously outplayed.

The word at the arena was that, until the second period Monday night, no team had ever failed to register a shot on goal in a period of a Stanley Cup Final game since the league started counting shots on goal 60 years ago. The way the course of Game 1 played out, I wouldn’t bet against it happening again in the next week or so.

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