Let’s stipulate that that’s not going to happen again. The Penguins aren’t going to shoot 41.6 percent, as they did in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, because hockey teams don’t just shoot 41.6 percent. At the other end, the Predators aren’t going to again allow four goals on 11 shots (before an empty-netter), not unless Conn Smythe favorite Pekka Rinne is replaced in net by that exploded catfish. Pittsburgh is not going to go 37 full minutes without recording a shot on goal, and they most certainly aren’t going to do so and win. So what on earth are we supposed to take from Game 1?
The Penguins’ 5-3 victory felt like four different games in one, and while momentum swings are part and parcel of any game, this was some intense whiplash. The Predators’ early surge, which included a P.K. Subban goal waved off on an offside review, made it look like Nashville would have no early jitters in their first finals trip. Then the Penguins racked up three goals in just over four minutes, and this thing looked done before the first period was out. But a weird thing happened. After Nick Bonino’s goal to make it 3-0 with 17 seconds left in the first, the Penguins started shooting blanks.
They went the entire second period without registering a shot on goal. Then most of the third period, as the Predators brought the score back level. And if any players ever tell you they’re unaware down on the bench of something like this, they’re lying.
“We knew for sure,” Bonino said of the drought. “You look up the whole second period, you don’t get a shot. Guys are yelling, ‘Shoot. We need to shoot.’”
Crosby even sent a mental plea to the off-ice officials who tally shots.
“You start to wonder, did you get a piece of [Rinne]? Or maybe the guy up there [the official scorer] can give us at least one,” Crosby said, smiling.
In all, Pittsburgh’s 12 shots were the fewest in franchise playoff history, and the fewest ever for a winning team in a Stanley Cup Final game.
But, you know, another way to look at this would be that they scored on consecutive shots. After Bonino’s first-period tally, the very next shot on goal, precisely 37 minutes later, was rookie Jake Guentzel’s, and it was the game-winner.
Guentzel was the last man in on the active roster for Game 1. With Patric Hornqvist back, one winger had to go, and Guentzel, sitting on an eight-game goal drought after an excellent start to his postseason, spent Sunday’s practice alternating at fourth-line left wing with Carl Hagelin, who’s been ineffective and may not be healthy. Hagelin was the scratch; Guentzel rewarded Mike Sullivan’s call with his fourth game-winning goal of the playoffs.
It wasn’t the prettiest shot, but it was a shot, and there is such a thing as goalies getting cold when they haven’t had to work.
“Just trying to use the D as a screen,” Guentzel said. “He hasn’t faced a shot in a while. You’re just trying to get it on net and see what happens from there.”
The play started with Justin Schultz doing something very few Penguins had done over the previous 37 minutes: being aggressive. Sullivan said he thought his players had been sitting back with a three-goal lead, and while that alone doesn’t explain a shotless streak, it certainly meant no real threats on Rinne. But with the game tied up, Schultz took a bit of a chance, stepping up to intercept a deflected Roman Josi pass at center ice and push it back toward Matt Cullen to set up Guentzel.
In the absence of Kris Letang, the Penguins have been without a workhorse blueliner, and have spread the shifts out fairly evenly. Everyone’s stepped up, but Schultz has been a minor revelation in his development from a purely offensive-minded defenseman into a smarter, more well-rounded player who’s growing increasingly adept at putting himself where he needs to be to prevent rushes, and sometimes send things the other way. Before Game 1, an assistant coach marveled over Schultz’s improvement.
“The area (of growth) that’s most noticeable has been his defensive side ... his positioning,” assistant coach Jacques Martin said. “He’s improved his compete level, his use of his stick, his position. All areas he’s grown in over the season.”
So, again, what the hell are we supposed to take from Game 1? Honestly, damned if I know. Neither team is as good or as bad as they each managed to look for long stretches. Things were so anomalous that it’s hard to identify anything that could plausibly carry over to the rest of the series. I am tempted to throw up my hands and declare a reset—with the Penguins one game closer than Nashville to the Cup, of course.
“None of us in our dressing room is fooled by the score tonight,” Mike Sullivan said. Of course it’s infinitely better to steal an unwarranted win than to take a hard-luck loss. There are no moral victories in best-of-seven series.