The play of Evgeni Malkin and Roman Josi will determine their respective teams’ fates.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Game 5 wasn’t supposed to go that way for the Nashville Predators. It’s fair to say nobody expects to lose a game in the Stanley Cup Final 6-0, of course, but the Preds seemed to have gained the upper hand in their series with the Pittsburgh Penguins after sweeping Sidney Crosby and company in Tennessee. Goalie Pekka Rinne had seemingly righted the ship, giving up only two goals at home after giving up nine over the first two games. It was the Penguins, instead, who were questioning whether it was time to make a goaltending change from Matt Murray back to Marc-Andre Fleury.
Sixty brutal minutes of hockey later and the story has changed. The Penguins put together their best game of the series in Game 5, a contrast to the almost flukish-sniping they needed to win Game 1 and the two uneven periods they put together before taking over in the third period of Game 2. In Game 5, they bounced Rinne from the net for a second time this series, appeared to have gotten Crosby going and could approach the rest of the series from a place of power. Even if they lose Game 6, the Penguins can head back home for Game 7 knowing Rinne is probably having nightmares about PPG Paints Arena.
Are the Predators doomed? Not necessarily. Let’s run through three key questions heading into Game 6 and explain why the Predators might actually have to emulate the Penguins to survive and claim their first Stanley Cup:
1. Will there be a hangover effect from getting blown out in Game 5?
It’s easy to construct narratives after the fact. If the Preds respond to their 6-0 loss from Game 5 with a win, we’ll hear about how they responded to adversity and being embarrassed with a resilient, gritty performance. If they lose comfortably again, we’ll hear the opposite argument, about how the loss emotionally crushed a team that hadn’t been here before. Neither story is particularly satisfying before the game begins.
Let’s look through history, though. Do teams that get blown out in a Stanley Cup playoff game fail to answer the bell the next time out? Or do they respond to a catastrophic defeat by redoubling their efforts and standing up for themselves? I went back and looked through every playoff game between 1970 and 2017 and split them all by the margin of defeat. I took out those games that eliminated a team, since they responded to their loss by hitting the golf course. Here’s what history tells us about how teams respond:
It’s a small sample, but Predators fans have to take a little hope from the six-goal column, given that teams that have lost by six goals in the postseason have gone 23-21 in their next game. Penguins fans might prefer to split the data a different way: Teams that lose by three goals or fewer have won their next game 50.8 percent of the time, while those that lost by four goals or more have claimed just under 39.5 percent of their subsequent games as a W.
A very happy memory for Pittsburgh natives might also proffer hope for the Predators. The last time a team lost by five or more goals in the finals and won their subsequent game was back in 2009, when the Penguins lost 5-0 in Game 5 to the Detroit Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena. The Penguins had lost to the Red Wings in the finals the previous year as a team that hardly had a reputation as postseason savants. They had lost Games 1 and 2 of the series in Detroit by identical 3-1 scores. And like the Predators, the Penguins had been forced to pull their goalie (then Fleury) during a dismal Game 5.
Then, suddenly, the Penguins figured things out. They grinded their way to a 2-1 win in Game 6, with Fleury keeping the Wings at bay until midway through the third period in a brilliant, 25-save performance. And in their return trip to their house of horrors — in a building where the Penguins had been outscored 21-6 while going 1-5 over those two Stanley Cup finals before Game 7 — Pittsburgh lost Crosby and still managed to hold onto another 2-1 victory for the first of their two Cups of the Crosby era.
2. Is Rinne toast, either in Game 6 or Game 7?
It’s hard to overstate just how bad Rinne looked during the opening period of Game 5. He looked uneasy handling the puck, was beaten early for a soft goal on the power play and never really recovered. The Predators were competitive offensively, actually leading the Penguins 6-5 in scoring chances during the first, but Rinne gave them no chance. And given that backup Juuse Saros gave up three goals on 15 shots after he took over after the first intermission, it’s difficult to argue that the Preds have a strong case for turning to him for Game 6.
As Travis Yost argued on Twitter, the Predators are lucky (in a way) that Rinne has been so inconsistent during these finals. On the whole, he has been bad; nobody saving less than 87 percent of shots is going to look very impressive under any circumstances, and if he had been consistently playing at that level throughout the series, Nashville would already be toast. Instead, the Preds are blessed that he was incredible at home, even though he has been unplayable on the road.
It would be foolish to argue that Rinne is going to be unable to respond to his disastrous Game 5 on an emotional level; after all, he was pretty bad during those first two losses in Pittsburgh, was pulled during the third period of Game 2 and responded by stopping 50 of the Penguins’ 52 shots over the next two games. (If there’s an injury ailing Rinne, well, that’s another story.)
As for Rinne’s woes on the road, they’re a new problem and one unlikely to continue manifesting itself on the biggest stage. During the previous rounds, although Rinne was better at home, the difference wasn’t remarkable: He ran a .947 save percentage at Bridgestone Arena and a .934 mark on his travels outside of Tennessee. That’s slightly more significant of a drop than the rest of the league’s goalies, who are combining to average a .919 save percentage at home and a .913 percentage on the road this postseason, but it’s also worth keeping some perspective here: Even on the road, Rinne had been way better than most goalies heading into the finals.
Heading into this postseason, Rinne hadn’t exhibited any sort of notable split either. His career playoff save percentage at home and on the road were an identical .912. He has been slightly better in the regular season at home (.921) than he has been on the road (.913), but there isn’t any sort of notable split to suggest he suddenly has become a creampuff away from Nashville. Rinne had been 0-3 with a .856 save percentage in Pittsburgh, but we’re dealing with very small samples here. The evidence suggests that Rinne is a very good goalie who happened to have a few bad games at the wrong time in the same location.
3. What’s the most notable problem for the Predators coming out of Game 5?
Very clearly, it’s the injury suffered by defenseman Ryan Ellis, who left during the second period of Game 5 with an upper-body injury and did not return. Ellis, who finished with a Corsi of minus-10 in his 10:44 of ice time, didn’t exactly have a great game — Crosby torched him within the first moments of the game to create a scoring chance, resulting in Ellis taking a penalty that led to the game’s opening goal — but the Predators can’t afford to head into Game 6 without one of their four key defensemen.
As Ryan Lambert of Puck Daddy wrote on Friday, the Predators are remarkably dependent upon their two top defensive pairings playing a ton of minutes. Head coach Peter Laviolette has basically spent this series trying to hide his third pairing of Yannick Weber and Matt Irwin in the offensive zone and away from Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
In Game 5, that went poorly. Irwin got caught pinching and was slow to get back on the Bryan Rust goal, which made it 2-0, part of a night that saw Irwin give up seven scoring chances in 15 minutes. Yikes. P.K. Subban had shut down Malkin, who hadn’t scored a single 5-on-5 goal with Subban on the ice this finals.
Then, with Subban in the locker room after his controversial scrap with Crosby, Malkin fired a one-timer past Weber in a 4-on-4 situation for the third goal of the game. Admittedly, Laviolette blamed referee Brad Meier for the goal in a … colorful fashion, but you get the idea. The Predators are in trouble if they have to promote Irwin or Weber to their second defensive pairing alongside Roman Josi.
Defense is the one place the Predators should have a significant advantage over the Penguins, but even that wasn’t the case in Game 5. As Dimitri Filipovic noted for Sportsnet, the Pittsburgh rearguard had been an absolute nightmare in possession through the first four games, struggling to create easy exits out of their zone. Ron Hainsey had been the biggest culprit, failing to maintain possession on even 30 percent of his attempts out of the zone. And then, in Game 5, Hainsey put together one of the more beautiful plays of the series, running two Predators forecheckers into themselves before gaining the red line and making his way to the net to tap in Pittsburgh’s sixth and final goal.
If Pittsburgh’s defensemen have suddenly grown comfortable amid Nashville’s aggressive style and continue to look like Bobby Orr for stretches of play, the Predators are in trouble. More plausibly, they’ll regress back to the unit that struggled in the first four games of the series. Without Ellis on the other side of the ice, though, the Penguins might be able to do so much on offense that a leaky defense simply won’t matter.