Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Predators dominate Penguins, but Game 1 slips away in a few minutes

, USA TODAY NETWORK -- Tennessee
May 29, 2017

Jake Guentzel #59 of the Pittsburgh Penguins scores the game-winning goal as Pekka Rinne #35 of the Nashville Predators defends during the third period in Game One of the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final at PPG Paints Arena on May 29, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

PITTSBURGH — After a game like that you ask what is missing, and you try to figure out if you can find it.

The answer for the Nashville Predators — just a few lost minutes. That’s all it takes.

The Pittsburgh Penguins, Stanley Cup Final graybeards and defending champs, welcomed the Nashville Predators to the big stage Monday by beating them 5-3 on it. This even though the Penguins were mostly dominated on it.

"We got a favorable result tonight, but we know we need to be much better to get where we need to go,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “None of us in the dressing room are fooled by the score tonight.”

But they’ll sure take it. Game 1 saw a tremendous start for the Predators, halted by a couple of killer calls, followed by a brief Penguins onslaught, followed by a Predators comeback from a three-goal deficit to tie, followed by Predators threats to lead, followed by Pittsburgh’s first shot on goal in 37 minutes.

Jake Guentzel, quick look on Pekka Rinne, blast, goal, 3:17 left. An empty netter followed and the Predators’ first trip to this place ended in a strange and regretful way.

Rinne gave up four goals on just 11 shots. Though he had no chance on a couple and though it’s difficult to face nothing for so long and stay sharp, his best game is one thing the Predators need to find.

“When it’s a night you’re not facing a lot of shots, it is different, but at the end of the day, my job is to make the save,” Rinne said. “And at the end of the game, I’m disappointed I couldn’t help my team.”

And yes, the officiating hurt that team. But the Predators can’t let calls derail them as they seemed to Monday. That was a big part of this result, and for the first time in this postseason, they trail in a series.

For the first time, the Predators did not start a series by winning Game 1 on the road. For the first time, it’s Nashville, not the sucker-punched opponent, that has to come up with a response. It’s Peter Laviolette, not the other guy, who must adjust.

“I thought our guys played great,” Laviolette said. “We hate the score, we hate the result, but we move forward.”

And they don’t need more help for the Penguins. It was 1-0 Predators on a P.K. Subban blast just seven minutes into a game they were controlling. But Sullivan challenged the play and officials overturned the goal, saying Filip Forsberg was offside.

He was, I think. His back skate appeared to be just off the ice before the puck fully crossed the line. But then, I had a hard time telling for certain on the replay.

I do know the review of something that had nothing to do with the actual scoring play is ridiculous and made the NHL look bad on a night it doesn’t want to look bad, but that’s a discussion for another time. Unfortunately for the Predators, officials then saw a Calle Jarnkrok trip that never happened and missed a Sidney Crosby interference right before Evgeni Malkin’s 5-on-3 blast that leaked past Rinne.

So, bad breaks. You have to respond to them.

“Changed the course of that game,” Laviolette said of that sequence, but it didn’t have to change it that much.

You can’t let them stifle your attack while the other team gets a second goal on a turnover and wide-open net, and a third on a wacky bounce off your defenseman (Mattias Ekholm). You can’t go from 0-0 to down 3-0 in a span of 4:11.

To the Predators’ credit, they responded to that horrific first-period finish with a terrific second, and they outplayed the Penguins for all but the last half of the first period.

Colton Sissons and Ryan Ellis had power-play goals, and Austin Watson made a monster play to set up Frederick Gaudreau for the equalizer. The Predators needed to make one more.

“This team just doesn’t give up,” said Nashville captain Mike Fisher, who returned to the lineup after a two-game absence and got his first point of the postseason. “That being said, that’s a good hockey team — we’ve got to find a way to get wins.”

They don’t need more rest. Nashville was the fresher team entering this final series, a week removed from eliminating the Ducks. The Penguins had to go double-overtime in Thursday’s Game 7 to finally shed Ottawa.

Nashville entered the Anaheim series with a similar edge in mental and physical freshness and used it to win Game 1. Not this time. So maybe all that missing experience really matters.

The Penguins came in with 171 Stanley Cup Final games played among their team members. The Predators came in with five, all from Fisher when he got to the final round with the Ottawa Senators in 2007.

They’ve got some experience now. And it wasn't especially enjoyable, even though for a minute there it looked like this might end up the most stirring win of this entire run. Which brings up the one thing the Predators lack that they might have in abundance soon enough.

Think about the road to get here. The strongly disliked Chicago Blackhawks. The not-especially-liked St. Louis Blues. The need-another-word-for-hated Anaheim Ducks.

Pittsburgh is a team the Predators see twice a year. Skilled, fast, celebrated but not especially nasty.

There’s no natural hostility here. But that’s something I think the Predators can find. Especially if the Penguins keep beating them like they did Monday, a four-minute knockout out of nowhere.

Contact Joe Rexrode at jrexrode@tennessean.com and follow him on Twitter @joerexrode.

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