Column: Penguins prevail late to beat Predators 5-3 in Stanley Cup Final opener

Penguins center Evgeni Malkin celebrates with teammate Trevor Daley after scoring against the Predators in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday night in Pittsburgh.
(Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

First came the catfish hurled from the stands, landing on the ice in a gory splash. Then came the stinky aspect of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ performance in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, a stretch of 37 minutes in which they didn’t muster a shot on goal and gave up a three-goal lead.

“I didn’t know what to think,” Penguins center Sidney Crosby said of his team’s lull, which spanned the entire second period. “I think you’re just hoping to get a shot on net and see what happens.”

As it happened their first shot after the drought, launched by rookie Jake Guentzel, went past Nashville Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne to break a tie with 3 minutes 17 seconds to play and propel the Penguins to a bizarre 5-3 victory Monday at PPG Paints Arena. The only team that has been held without a shot on goal for an entire period in the Cup Final since the NHL began tracking shots on goal in the 1957-58 season is now three victories away from winning its second straight title. It’s also the only team that has beaten the Predators in the opener of a playoff series in four rounds this spring.


Weird doesn’t begin to describe it.

“Nothing surprises me in this game anymore, honestly,” Predators forward Colton Sissons said. “You just never know.”

Guentzel, who broke a personal drought by scoring his first goal in nine games, had no clue he’d get the winner. “We were just kind of throwing pucks at the net there,” he said. “Fortunate to go in.”

The Predators appeared to have scored first, at 7:13 of the first period, when a shot by P.K. Subban from the top of the right circle got past Penguins goalie Matt Murray. But the Penguins challenged the play on the basis that it was offside and the goal was waved off after a lengthy review.

That seemed to awaken the Penguins. Given a five-on-three advantage when Calle Jarnkrok and James Neal were sent to the penalty box at 13:50, the Penguins took the lead on a shot by Evgeni Malkin that snaked over the left leg of Rinne at 15:32. The Penguins doubled the lead to 2-0 on a beautiful passing play capped when Chris Kunitz, on the left side, found Conor Sheary on the right side. Rinne leaned the wrong way, leaving Sheary half the net to score his first goal of the playoffs.

It looked like the rout was on when Rinne stopped a shot by Nick Bonino but couldn’t control the rebound, which caromed off the leg of Predators defenseman Mattias Ekholm and into the net at 19:43. It was the third goal by the Penguins in seven shots on Rinne, who began the Cup Final with a sparkling .941 save percentage, and it should have inspired them.

Instead, they stopped playing. No question, the Predators’ defense had a lot to do with that — Nashville was credited with 14 blocked shots and 37 hits — but the Penguins offered little resistance. “When you’re playing a team like Nashville that has a balanced attack you’ve got to have some pushback. I don’t think in the second period we had any pushback,” Penguins Coach Mike Sullivan said. “We just weren’t very good.”


Predators captain Mike Fisher, back after sitting out two games because of an injury, said he didn’t realize how long the Penguins had gone without a shot on goal but recognized that he and his teammates were getting a lifeline. “We knew we were coming and getting our chances. We felt pretty good about our game even though we were down,” said Fisher, who had two assists.

The Predators, ever patient and resilient, began to win puck battles and create time and space to make plays.

Ryan Ellis used teammate Viktor Arvidsson as a screen for a long shot that got past Murray during a power play at 8:21 of the second period, and a shot by defenseman Roman Josi hit Sissons on the leg and caromed into the net during a power play at 10:06 of the third.

Nashville pulled even at 13:29, after Austin Watson won a battle behind the net and fed an onrushing Frederick Gaudreau for a quick shot. The crowd quickly became almost as quiet as the Penguins’ offense.

“We were kind of in a hole there and believed we were going to come back and we did it,” Sissons said. “Unfortunately we lost it in the end there.”

Guentzel’s goal and an empty-net tally by Bonino sealed the victory for the Penguins, who will host Game 2 on Wednesday. They’ll be better, they vowed, and they’ll have to make good on that against the resilient Predators. “None of us in our dressing room are fooled by the score tonight,” Sullivan said. “This is something that we’ll learn from and we’ll respond the right way.”


Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen