|PATRIC HORNQVIST, Pittsburgh|
|THE FLIP SIDE IS MUSIC TO PENGUINS NATION|
Ignore what’s on the back side of that 45 at your own peril. Music fans and record collectors know this axiom well. But in Music City last night, Predators fans were reminded of this bedrock principle of the recording industry in the cruelest possible way when Patric Hornqvist used the backside of goaltender Pekka Rinne to bank in the only goal of the Cup-winning game with just a minute and a half remaining in the third period.
The tension cords connecting the 12 players on the ice were so tight that it felt inevitable that when one would snap it would be from a place no one was looking. And, of course, Rinne couldn’t have been.
The Penguins had established some frantic zone time and the Predators were running around, desperately trying to clear the puck out to the safety of center ice. Pittsburgh defenseman Justin Schultz obtained a parcel of free ice and sent a shot from the center point that went just wide of the net. Hornqvist, however, seemed to be anticipating the puck as it came off the boards and raced behind the end line to greet the carom.
Rinne couldn’t afford to devote full attention to him, however, for he didn’t know what dangers lurked out in front of the net. But this is the situation the crafty Hornqvist excels in. Training his eye on the airborne puck and seeing an opening between Rinne’s back and the open goal, Hornqvist immediately swatted the puck against Rinne, who was fully aware of what was happening but powerless to stop it. And the flip side was solid gold and Penguin black in Nashville.
There will probably be commentators who parachuted in for the playoffs or hosts on national radio shows that will either lament or complain that the Stanley Cup was decided on a fluke goal.
They couldn’t be more wrong. It was a well-earned and creative goal in every facet. The pressure Pittsburgh applied to retain possession in the Predators end led to Hornqvist establishing net-side presence. The shot by Schultz against the end boards was by design. The lanes to the goal were clogged and he devised his shot to reach Hornqvist indirectly. And in a game where anything the goalies could see they stopped, it was Hornqvist’s exceptional hand-eye coordination that allowed him to bat the puck out of the air and direct it exactly where he wanted to: Between the goaltender’s numbers.
And you have to turn the sweater over to find those numbers.
|6/11/2017 vs. Nashville|
|JUSTIN SCHULTZ, Pittsburgh|
|BEST IN CLASS — SLAP SHOT|
The Penguins, from the drop of the first puck, came out in Game 5 like a rocket from a bottle gone free. In the previous games, the slick ice surface has created fitful starts, with plenty of icings and conservative play. But Pittsburgh was determined to match its speed game to the pristine ice conditions immediately in hopes of catching the Predators unprepared.
Sidney Crosby, who we’ve seen use his bursts through the center of the ice judiciously in the first four games, took his first opportunity to exploit Nashville’s tentativeness and drew a holding penalty from Ryan Ellis 50 seconds into the game while still managing to clank a backhand off the post during an electrifying run through the Predators zone.
The Penguins power play, so diffident throughout the first four games, immediately displayed a new, bold face. A dozen passes must have preceded Justin Schultz’ one-timed bullet from the center point — and all of them looked as though they were practiced repeatedly during the two previous off days.
The zone entry was purposeful and for a change pushed the Nashville forwards back on their heels. And once inside, puck and legs were in constant motion as Pittsburgh worked to get Schultz an unimpeded shot.
40 seconds in, that opportunity came and Schultz delivered from long range, through the legs of both Austin Watson and goaltender Pekke Rinne. Fantastic shot, kept low and precisely targeted.
Schultz has had to take over the power play from the blue line with the midseason loss of Kris Letang. Though the Penguins power play has sputtered in this series, Schultz has provided three goals and four assists while Pittsburgh has had the man advantage throughout the playoffs.
His exclamation mark at the end of a beautiful sequence of passes to score the first goal of the game last night set the tone for an immaculate performance that he and his teammates would carry out for 60 minutes and grab the crucial fifth game, 6-0.
|6/8/2017 vs. Nashville|
|VIKTOR ARVIDSSON, Predators|
|BEST IN CLASS — BREAKAWAY|
Viktor Arvidsson was one of the great stories of the regular season. After compiling eight goals in his first 62 games in the NHL, Arvidsson, a fourth-round draft pick, emerged this season as a symbol of the kinetically electric Nashville hockey scene, scoring 31 goals to tie for the team lead.
In spite of Arvidsson’s significant contribution to their success this year, the Predators have taken off on their playoff run without relying on him to fill up the net. Before last night, other than an empty-net goal, he had only scored once previously in the team’s 19 postseason games. And that was in Game 1 of the opening series against the Blackhawks, when he scored the only goal of the game.
Arvidsson, however, is among the postseason leaders in assists (6th) and plus minus (7th). So when he burst through the neutral zone ahead of two Pittsburgh defenders in hot pursuit of a diving headmanned pass by Mike Fisher, there was little reason to think another Predator would be better suited to finish the task.
With Nashville ahead 2-1, Arvidsson collected Neal’s headlong pass just as he hit the blue line. Though they were only a half stride behind, neither Patric Hornqvist or Justin Schultz would lay a mitt or the blade of a stick on the explosive Arvidsson. But, feeling their breath on him as though they were Subban on Crosby, Arvidsson elected to let fly with a snap shot as he hit the slot and flew the puck by goaltender Matt Murray on the glove side.
For Arvidsson, it was his first goal into a guarded net in 53 days. But the play up and down the Nashville lineup has been so exemplary that nobody was noticing his drought particularly. But the Penguins have to be most wary now that he has broken free of it.
|6/5/2017 vs. Pittsburgh|
|JAKE GUENTZEL, Pittsburgh|
|BEST IN CLASS — SNAP SHOT|
When Jake Guentzel recaptured the lead and scored the game-winning goal in Game 1 of the finals, two streaks came to an end. The first was the 8-game goalless streak for the playoffs’ leading scorer. The other was the Penguins failing to put a shot on goal for 37:09.
The clock had wound down to less than 3 1/2 minutes remaining in the third period and Pittsburgh had not recorded a shot on goal since Nick Bonino’s goal in the final minute of the first period. During that span the Predators had overcome a 3-0 deficit to tie the score.
Guentzel’s shot was worth a full bucket of them, though. Matt Cullen, standing on the blue line at the right wing boards, flipped the puck to Guentzel, who was already in flight coming through the neutral zone. Nashville, which had so effectively turned pucks over before the Penguins could penetrate their zone, had just Ryan Ellis back and Guentzel bore in on him.
Just as he hit the center of the right circle, Guentzel quickly released a snap shot that zipped past the leg of Ellis and over the shoulder of the butterflying Pekka Rinne. The Penguins then clamped down for the rest of the game with no scary moments in their own end. Nick Bonino salted the game away with a clever aerial flip from his end of the ice over the Predators defense and into an empty net.
Lost in all the tut-tutting about the historically low shot total for a Stanley Cup victor was the glass half-full scenario. Not even talking about winning the game. With 5 goals on 12 shots, Pittsburgh converted on 41.7% of their shots.
Has that ever been done?
|5/29/2017 vs. Nashville|
|FREDERICK GAUDREAU, Predators|
|FIRST NHL GOAL|
When Frederick Gaudreau celebrated with his teammates, his first NHL goal might well have been an afterthought — even for him.
Capping a comeback that was both improbable and probable, Gaudreau converted a pass from Austin Watson after racing into the slot and tied Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals, 3-3, in the latter stages of the third period.
The improbability of the comeback derived from the Predators overcoming a 3-0 hole they sunk into in the final 20 seconds of the first period. The probability of the comeback stemmed from the fact that Nashville had held the Penguins without a shot ever since then, spanning the entire second period and what would, fatefully, become the first 16:42 of the third period.
So weird enough that Gaudreau’s first NHL goal came in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. But such distinctiveness was no match for the peculiarity swirling all around it.
Gaudreau, an undrafted French Canadian, appeared in nine games for the Predators during the regular season, debuting in the NHL at the age of 24. When Nashville lost two centermen at the end of the conference finals against Anaheim, he was called up as an emergency replacement. On his first shot in eight-plus playoff periods, Gaudreau bested Matt Murray with just six and a half minutes remaining in the third period.
Though the moment was Gaudreau’s, the exceptional poise and elusiveness of Austin Watson was responsible for all but the finishing touch.
Having just killed off a Penguins power play with no shots on their net (of course) the Predators immediately went back to work on offense, getting the puck deep in the Pittsburgh corner. (more…)
|CHRIS KUNITZ, Penguins|
|HEADS PENGUINS WIN, TAILS SENATORS LOSE|
If ever there were a game that might require a flip of a coin to guess the winner, it was Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals between the Senators and Penguins.
The two teams had split four one-goal games and each had won a blowout through the first six games of the series. Ottawa had led the series twice, Pittsburgh once. And though the Penguins had outshot the Senators 41-27 through three periods and then the first overtime, this was more an indication of Ottawa’s wait-and-pounce style than domination by Pittsburgh in Game 7.
So you might as well have tossed a coin to choose the winning team as the game went five minutes deep into the second overtime.
Or rather Chris Kunitz might as well have. But instead of a coin, the Penguins left wing, who had been held off the scoresheet in his first 13 playoff games this year, used a puck.
With a screen in front, Kunitz received a pass from Sidney Crosby just above the inside part of the left circle. He was perfectly set up for a one-timer and he timed his slap shot to greet the puck just as it entered his shooting area.
But a funny thing happened when Kunitz made contact. Well, maybe not funny in Canada’s capital, but funny as in strange. Instead of meeting it solidly and blasting it toward the Ottawa net, Kunitz struck it in such a way that the puck teetered off his stick.
Ottawa’s J.G. Pageau was directly in front of goalie Craig Anderson, however. So as the puck wobbled dangerously toward the net, Anderson never caught sight of it. In fact, while Kunitz’ intention for the puck was for it soar like a bird, instead, well . . . it rather resembled a Penguin in motion as it wavered its way over the shoulder of Anderson.
And in a flash, there were 19 Penguins looking more like peregrine falcons as they flew from the bench and ice to swarm the hero of the moment.
It seems in this postseason every Penguin has his day. And Kunitz chose his at the best possible time, scoring two of the three Pittburgh goals and assisting on the other in leading his team to the Stanley Cup finals.
|5/25/2017 vs. Ottawa|
|MIKE HOFFMAN, Senators|
|BEST IN CLASS — SLAP SHOT|
Quick sticks by the Penguins had frustrated Ottawa all series from getting the transition game going which was so instrumental in the Senators wins over Boston and New York in the first two rounds.
The Erik Karlsson stretch passes have been nowhere to be seen. J.G. Pageau bolts from the blue have succumbed to the muck and the mire of alert Pittsburgh stick work on breakout passes. So when Ottawa finally got some open ice last night, it was up to Mike Hoffman to capitalize on it.
Defenseman Frederik Claesson centered a 3-on-2 rush after the Penguins Scott Wilson got caught up-ice after throwing a monster — but largely superflous — hit on Clarke MacArthur.
With wingers on either side accompanying him, Claesson dished off to Hoffman, who was a few strides ahead, but planted at the blue line on the left half boards to make sure Claesson entered the zone first.
Hoffman burst forward after receiving the puck, completely unattended to by the Pittsburgh defense. He stepped just inside the top of the left circle, waited for an instant to allow Claesson to cut across goaltender Matt Murray’s sight line, and ripped a slap shot in full stride past the glove of Murray and off the post and in.
The mere sight of all that open ice was enough to allow the fans at Canadian Tire Center a deep breath for a change. When the light burned red, a massive discharge of pent-up tension shook the building.
|5/23/2017 vs. Pittsburgh|
|CAM FOWLER, Ducks|
|BEST IN CLASS — SCREEN|
The Ducks went down, but they went down valiantly.
If ever a team played a perfect game while still losing, it was Anaheim last night at Bridgestone Arena. With the Predators home crowd in full Rocky Horror midnight-showing mode, Anaheim thoroughly dominated Nashville in each zone and on the shot clock, but not, of course, on the scoreboard.
The 6-3 final score was inflated once again by the spate of empty-net goals which continue to throw scoring columns out of whack. Not counting the two empty-netters, the Ducks outshot the Predators, 41-16. They killed a five-minute penalty off in the first period without allowing a shot on goal with a gun to their head, having already fallen behind, 2-0. And they overcame a 3-1 third period deficit in this most hostile environment before allowing the game-winner to Colton Sissons following a power play of their own.
In fact it was this power play which seemed to throw Anaheim out of its rhythm. Even after Cam Fowler tied the game with 11 minutes left on the third period clock, the Ducks continued to roll through the neutral zone time after time, like waves cresting at the blue line before pounding their way to the front of the Nashville net. But once the Ducks tied the score it was almost as if they took a moment to reflect on their achievement rather than pressing with the same urgency that put the Predators on their heels the entire game.
The letdown led to a blown coverage in their own end, allowing Sissons (more…)
|FILIP FORSBERG, Predators|
|BEST IN CLASS — GOALTENDER PULLED FOR EXTRA SKATER|
In a game that had everything, so too, very nearly, did the winning goal.
Once again, a two-goal lead proved unsafe, as the Predators stalked the Ducks throughout the third period until finally hunting them down with 34 seconds remaining in the game.
Remarkably, Anaheim refused to allow a carry-over effect into the overtime and won the game on another Corey Perry sudden-death goal. Anyone who had watched the previous period would rightly be astonished by this outcome. In fact, just before going to commercial, whether intentionally or not (I say it was), Keith Jones in the NBCSN studio was clearly heard to say sotto voce “See ya in a few minutes.” He did, but not with the outcome he thought he foresaw.
The sense of doom shrouding the Ducks as they came out for the overtime was caused by yet another 2017 Stanley Cup frantic finish.
Nashville tied the game with their goaltender pulled for a sixth skater. Remarkably, there have been 12 goals scored during the playoffs in this fashion — exactly as many as there have been empty-net goals.
Filip Forsberg, who has returned to his scorching late-season form, got the job done for the Predators inside the last minute. Along the way were two penalties which could easily have been assessed to Nashville on the play, a punch to the face while play was still going on and a Ryan Johansen cross-check on Josh Manson to retrieve a loose puck.
The Ducks had every reason to be crushed. They had spent 90 seconds successfully killing off a 5-on-3 disadvantage just a few moments prior. With the crowd at Bridgestone Arena in bonkers overdrive, Anaheim didn’t even yield a single shot on goal. The Ducks, in fact, were forced to fight off four penalties in the final 12 minutes of the third period, all of which they managed. But 6-on-5 is the key to scoring goals in these playoffs, and the Predators became the latest team to strike in desperation.
With 41 seconds left, James Neal flung a shot netward from the right circle. The puck struck the stick of Anaheim defenseman Hampus Lindholm and appeared to be heading into the netting. So much so that, while the puck was presumably flying out of play, Lindholm lightly cross-checked Viktor Arvidsson, and the Nashville winger popped him in the noggin with his gloved hand while showing resignation that the play had gone dead.
But the puck hadn’t flown off the rink at all. (more…)
|JAMES NEAL, Predators|
|BEST IN CLASS — ONE-TIMER|
The conference semifinals got off to a grindingly slow start. Whistles every 10 seconds — or so it seemed. And a mind-boggling number of empty seats at Honda Center seeming to suggest that the playoffs, after a stirring second round, had already peaked.
But in order to accommodate prime-time viewing in the eastern half of the country, game time was set at 6:15 in Anaheim. And when the freeways had finally unclogged and those seats turned into orange jerseys, the opener between the Predators and Ducks picked up exactly where the NHL last left us following two nerve-wracking Game 7s on Wednesday.
For the 24th time a Cup game was ended in overtime. The latest player to be submerged under a tide of celebrating teammates was James Neal of Nashville. His one-timer from upper right circle made it into the net despite a heroic — win or lose — effort by Corey Perry to make it not happen.
The play was set up by Matthias Ekholm, another of the Predators’ offensively-skilled defensemen. Ekholm skated the puck in all the way from the right point and cut across the crease hoping to catch Anaheim off guard. He was successful right until ending up directly in front of goaltender John Gibson, at which point the collection of bodies in front toppled him.
But he got right back up and followed the puck to the left corner. After all the commotion in front, PK Subban was wide open at the left point. Ekholm got him the puck and Subban, whose maturation has impressed from the start of the playoffs, used the reputation of his heavy shot to set up Neal.
With a very convincing wind-up, Subban got the Ducks in front to swing toward his side of the ice. Instead of trying to blast the puck through this phalanx, he deftly slid the puck over to Neal, who was cocked and ready.
Neal’s slap shot was ticketed for the upper left corner of the net with no bodies in front. But then, there was one. Perry unfastened himself from the cluster standing in Subban’s path and made a last-ditch effort to get in front of Neal’s laser. And he did it face-first.
Remarkably Perry’s self-preservation instincts won out and he was spared a year of appointments with the dentist. But he managed to keep his frame upright as his stick flew out of his hands as he (more…)