PITTSBURGH – Fortunately for the Pittsburgh Penguins, their trio of stars brought their “A” games. Unfortunately for the Nashville Predators, they did not, and Pekka Rinne brought his “road” game.
Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel combining for eight points and Rinne once again not looking sharp in Steel City computed to a 6-0 Penguins beatdown in Game 5 Thursday night. After a one-sided affair that dished the Predators a big helping of humble pie, the Penguins find themselves one game from back-to-back Stanley Cup championships and the Predators find themselves facing elimination for the first time in their Cinderella ride to hockey’s pinnacle.
“Still a lot of work to be done,” Crosby said after a dogged night at the office. “But the way we played, if we can build off that momentum, that’s important. But we know we’re going to face a desperate team.”
The good news for the Predators? All they have to do to force a Game 7 back in Pittsburgh is win one more home game Sunday in maniacal Smashville, a place they’re 9-1 this postseason (9-0 in games ending in regulation).
“The real hockey starts now,” Predators defenseman P.K. Subban said. “We have to get excited about an opportunity to come back here for Game 7. We have to take care of business like we’ve done all year and all playoffs.”
But the Predators and Rinne must be better than they were at PPG Paints Arena, where Crosby had three assists, Kessel had a goal and two assists and Malkin had a goal and assist to hand Nashville its most lopsided playoff defeat in history.
For the second time in three games in Pittsburgh, Rinne was pulled. After consecutive masterpieces at home to enable Nashville to even the series, Rinne allowed three goals on nine shots and never saw the second period. Rinne fell to 0-3 in Pittsburgh this series with a 5.41 goals-against average and .756 save percentage.
Rinne felt confident from the outset but, “It seemed hard for us to get anything going.”
“It’s not his fault,” defenseman Roman Josi said. “We left him hanging. We’ve got to be better as a team, better in front of him. We didn’t make the right decisions the whole game.”
Crosby came to play. He created chances all opening period, drew the game’s first penalty and assisted on one of three first-period goals.
“The work ethic that he drives, everyone follows,” veteran Chris Kunitz said of Crosby.
“There’s a lot of competitive guys, but I don’t think there are a lot of guys who can raise their level to where Sid gets to,” Matt Cullen added. “When he senses the opportunity, it’s unlike anything I’ve seen, the way he steps up and raises his level.”
After giving up goals to Justin Schultz and Bryan Rust, Rinne gave up a backbreaking goal to Malkin with 10 seconds left in the first. Peter Laviolette was incensed after with referee Brad Meier, whom the Predators coach felt gifted a 4-on-4. Presiding over a wrestling match, Meier called coincidental holding penalties on Crosby and Subban despite Crosby repeatedly forcing Subban’s head into the ice.
“I don’t understand it. I saw my guy’s head get cross-checked into the ice like 10 times,” Laviolette said.
“He lost his stick and he was doing some UFC move on my foot there,” Crosby insisted. “I was trying to get out of there.”
Things didn’t get better for the Predators in the second when backup Jusse Saros gave up three more goals.
Crosby’s passed Mario Lemieux for the most points in Penguins Stanley Cup Final history (20). Additionally, Woodbury’s Jake Guentzel had an assist to match Dino Ciccarelli and Ville Leino for the most points by an NHL rookie in a single postseason (21).
Before the game, many wondered if the Penguins were out of gas after last year’s Cup run and another grueling postseason.
The answer was an emphatic no. The Penguins unearthed their best and are a win from becoming the NHL’s first repeat champs since 1998.
“That’s a championship team over there,” Subban said. “They know what they have to do, they understand what’s at stake, and we have to turn the page real quick here and get ready for Game 6, and we will be better.”
However, Malkin made clear, “We go to Nashville to win.”