Their goaltender stood tall and their fans stood on their feet almost all night, too energized to be confined to a seat during the Nashville Predators’ first-ever home Stanley Cup Final game. The combination of Pekka Rinne regaining his excellent form and the crowd generating so much excitement were a potent combination for the Predators, who made good on defenseman P.K. Subban’s bold proclamation a few days ago that they would win once they got home.
A stronger performance by Rinne, who had looked shaky in two losses at Pittsburgh, and a three-goal spree in the second period lifted the Predators to a 5-1 victory over the Penguins on Saturday before a roaring, buzzing crowd at Bridgestone Arena. In cutting the Penguins’ series lead to 2-1 the Predators made the most of their mobile defense — their blueliners contributed two goals and five points — and were far more conscientious defensively than they were in the first two games.
“We want the Cup!” the crowd chanted at the end, and suddenly it didn’t seem at all farfetched, not after the Predators held Sidney Crosby and Egveni Malkin without a shot on goal in the same game for the first time in the duo’s playoff careers and negated three Pittsburgh power plays.
“It’s the best atmosphere I ever played in. It’s spectacular,” said Subban, who downplayed the importance of the prediction he had made after Game 2. “Anybody that paid the price of admission today to watch the game, I’m sure it was money well spent for them.”
They saw the Predators tighten up defensively in front of Rinne, who gained strength as Saturday’s game went on. Coach Peter Laviolette said that despite the contrived debate sparked by those two losses about whether he should stay with Rinne or go to backup Juuse Saros in Game 3, there really was no decision to make.
“I don’t even think it was so much that he bounced back. I thought we did a better job of playing in front of him and not giving up odd-man rushes,” Subban said. “Jeez, it’s tough. You’re going to give up odd-man rushes to the defending Stanley Cup champions they’re going to bury you. They did a good job of that in the first two games and I thought we did a better job today…We gave up a few, and when we did he was there to shut the door just like he’s been all year. I know there’s been a lot of talk about Peks but I don’t think it’s really warranted.”
Rinne gave up the game’s first goal, on a rebound, at 2:46 of the first period. Rookie Jake Guentzel extended his playoff-leading goal total to 13 when he corralled the rebound of a shot by Ian Cole and tapped it under Rinne, momentarily silencing the crowd.
But goals by Roman Josi and Frederick Gaudreau 42 seconds apart in the second period gave the Predators new life. James Neal’s goal with 23 seconds left in the second period, set up on a pass by Viktor Arvidsson that went off the net, gave Nashville a 3-1 lead and lifted the decibel level even higher.
Rinne said he never lost confidence in his teammates, who gave him an extra cushion on goals by Craig Smith from the hash marks at 4:54 of the third period and Mattias Ekholm’s power-play goal at 13:10. Nor did he lose confidence in himself.
“It comes from what we’ve built all year,” he said. “It comes from our leadership. It comes from our coaching. It comes from the players in the room who believe we can win a hockey game when we need to win a hockey game.
“We got a job done, and it’s a great one for our team. We’ll build on that.”
The Penguins have to rebuild a power play that is one for 13 in the Final, an inexcusable conversion rate for a team with such scoring depth and individual skill. Coach Mike Sullivan said the power-play struggles might be carrying over to other parts of the game: Crosby had one assist but only three shot attempts (one blocked and two missed the net) and postseason scoring leader Malkin attempted no shots. “When they have success on the power play it helps their overall game five on five. And we haven’t had that success and we’ve got to figure that out,” Sullivan said.
“Those are important guys for us. We want them to get pucks on the net because of their ability to score.”
In the waning minutes Crosby could be seen jawing with Subban. The Predators defenseman wasn’t shy about disclosing what was said. “He went on to tell me that my breath smelled bad and I really don’t understand why because I used Listerine before the game. I thought my breath smelled great,” Subban said. “At the end of the day we’re just going to take the win and move on.”
Game 4 will be played Monday at Bridgestone Arena. By then, the partying and noise from Saturday’s triumph might just be dying down.