NASHVILLE, Tenn. — For the first time in the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs, the Nashville Predators are facing elimination. If there are any positives to glean from their current 3-2 series deficit against the Pittsburgh Penguins, it’s that they will play Sunday (8 p.m. ET) within the friendly confines of Bridgestone Arena.
The raucous Nashville crowd will certainly play a prominent role as the Predators look to extend the series to force a winner-takes-all Game 7 on Wednesday in Pittsburgh. That, along with a few other factors, will be key if the Predators want to continue their magical postseason run.
Use that crowd: By now, the hometown crowd at Bridgestone has taken on a mythical aura. The Predators have thrived in front of their boisterous — some would say bonkers — fans. That Southern home cooking has led the Preds to a 9-1 record in Nashville this postseason. Not that the Predators need an additional home-ice advantage, but the energy could be at an all-time high inside and outside the arena. Game 6 coincides with the end of CMA Fest, the annual country music extravaganza that is among the city’s biggest tourist draws. The combination of these two events will make for a crowded and electric atmosphere all around Music City and could give the Preds the boost they need.
Frustrate the Pens’ stars: The high-scoring trio of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel has generally not produced when it has been thrown off its game by the Predators’ on-ice barbs, be they physical or verbal. If Nashville’s defense, coupled with its crowd, can keep these stars occupied, Pittsburgh won’t have the scoring depth to pick up the slack. Although Crosby scored Pittsburgh’s lone goal in its 4-1 loss in Game 4, Malkin and Kessel were shut out entirely in Nashville’s two home games. In Game 3, Crosby and Malkin both failed to get a shot on net, adding to the frustration they demonstrated in Nashville. That needs to continue for the Preds to stay alive.
Get a goal from Josi: With top center Ryan Johansen out with a leg injury, much of the offensive responsibility has fallen squarely on star defenseman Roman Josi. He leads all defensemen with six postseason goals, and the Predators are 5-0 in the playoffs when their blue-line leader scores. His game-tying goal on the power play in Game 3 gave Nashville a considerable boost on its way to a one-sided 5-1 win that got it back in the series. Few players this postseason have balanced defensive responsibility with offensive aggressiveness more effectively than Josi has. The Predators are at their best when he is able to straddle that line.
Rinne must show up: Perhaps no player has figured more prominently in this series than the Predators’ franchise goaltender, Pekka Rinne. When he has played well, the Predators have been unbeatable. When he has played poorly, Nashville hasn’t had a chance. Fortunately for Nashville, Rinne has been outstanding at home this postseason, posting a .949 save percentage at Bridgestone Arena. If he struggles like he did in his three losses in Pittsburgh, it will be curtains for the Predators. In three games in Pittsburgh in the Cup Final, he has been pulled twice in favor of backup Juuse Saros. The only road game in which he wasn’t pulled was the series opener, and he allowed four goals on just 11 shots that night. If Rinne brings his best in Game 6, this series should make one last swing back to the Steel City.
Cover Malkin on the power play: Pittsburgh’s power play, and particularly Malkin’s spot at the point, has proven crucial in this series. The Penguins are 2-0 in the Stanley Cup Final when they score with the man advantage. In both those wins, Games 1 and 5, Pittsburgh opened the scoring with the man advantage courtesy of a blistering Malkin shot from the blue line. With Crosby, Kessel and Malkin skating together on the No. 1 power-play unit, the towering Russian has found his sweet spot along the blue line. If the Predators can keep him from unleashing his dangerous slap shot from that area, it could considerably improve their chances of winning.