Even Gary Bettman’s pre-Stanley Cup final remarks couldn’t dampen the intrigue of the NHL championship series opener between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Nashville Predators on Monday night.
The league’s commissioner, in his annual pre-final press conference, announced the Tampa Bay Lightning will play host to the 2018 all-star weekend in late January.
This was a devastating blow for those of us who still held out hope of a last-minute change of heart that the NHL owners would allow the game’s best to perform at the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang in February. There will be no Sidney Crosby, Erik Karlsson, Alex Ovechkin, Auston Matthews or Patrik Laine to showcase hockey on the world’s biggest sporting stage.
There was no NHL all-star game in 2006, 2010 and 2014 in order to accommodate the past three Olympic Games. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather see hockey’s best players in the Olympics than another mundane all-star game. But Bettman has his reasons and he has convinced the owners that the Olympics are no longer a worthwhile endeavour after the International Olympic Committee said it wouldn’t cover the costs of insurance, travel, hospitality and accommodations for the NHL.
So let’s be thankful for the fascinating curtain raiser in the Stanley Cup championship series that pits Pittsburgh’s powerful offence versus Nashville’s stifling defence.
Predators burned by video review
This wasn’t a gem hockey purists would applaud. But this was a truly unique evening. Both the Penguins and Predators have every right to feel good after Pittsburgh’s 5-3 victory Monday night.
The Penguins can feel good because they stole one.
The Predators can feel good because they played well enough to win. They proved that even without one of their top players in Ryan Johansen, who’s out for the series with a left thigh injury, the Predators could stick with the defending champs.
Nashville started well, only to have an early goal taken away after a controversial video review ruled Filip Forsberg was barely offside prior to a P.K. Subban shot that would have made it 1-0. The offside was detected by the hero of the night, Penguins video co-ordinator Andy Saucier.
Predators forward James Neal compounded his team’s troubles when he got overzealous with a few crosscheck blows to his former Dallas Stars teammate, Trevor Daley, now an important part of the Penguins’ blue-line. Neal’s brain cramp put the Penguins on a 5-on-3 power play.
Pittsburgh did not disappoint the home crowd. Evgeni Malkin scored during the two-man advantage and before the period ended, the Penguins enjoyed a 3-0 lead. Nick Boninno’s goal that made it 3-0 deflected in off Nashville defenceman Mattias Ekholm late in the period.
For the next 37 minutes of action, the Penguins did not put a shot on Predators goalie Pekka Rinne until Pittsburgh rookie Jake Guentzel scored the late game winner with a quick release off the rush for his league-leading 10th playoff goal.
No team had ever gone a period without a shot on goal in a Stanley Cup final game since the league began tracking shots on goal in 1957-58 — yet alone 37 minutes.
There was some speculation Guentzel, who hadn’t scored since Game 6 of the second round against the Washington Capitals, might be a healthy scratch for the series opener. But he did play and he made history to become only the fifth rookie to reach 10 or more goals in the playoffs, after Dino Ciccarelli (Minnesota, 1981), Claude Lemieux (Montreal, 1986), Jeremy Roenick (Chicago, 1990) and Brad Marchand (Boston, 2011).
Meanwhile, in the 37 minutes between the Boninno and Guentzel goals, the Predators were able to shake off the overturned goal and Neal’s undisciplined act to mount a comeback. They outshot their opponents 9-0 and tied the game on undrafted Frederick Gaudreau’s dandy goal midway through the third period. It was the first NHL goal for the 24-year-old Gaudreau from Bromont, Que., who was playing in only his 12th combined regular-season and playoff game.
Pens ‘weren’t very good’
This was the first time the Predators didn’t open a series with a win on the road in this playoff run.
“I thought our guys played well, from start to finish,” Predators coach Peter Laviolette said. “The third goal was tough. It’s not really even a scoring chance and it goes off of our defenceman, shin guard and into the net. That pushed the score 3-0.
“From the way we started and the way we continued on after that, I thought our guys played great. I thought we played a good game. We hate the score. We hate the result. But we’ll move forward.”
And how do the Penguins move forward?
“We weren’t very good,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said “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.
“We had kind of a sleepy start for the first six or seven minutes, but then I thought our team really responded.
“But we’re also well aware of how the game was played out there. We know that we have to be better, that we got outplayed in a lot of aspects of the game for stretches of time, and our expectation is higher for ourselves.”