Pittsburgh's Belief Might Be What Ultimately Outlasts Nashville
What separates these two championship-caliber teams? Just ask Mike Sullivan.
The Stanley Cup Final has boiled down to a best-of-three that lacks mystery but not intrigue.
We know, by now, how it’ll play out between the Penguins and the Predators.
What remains anybody’s guess is how it’ll turn out.
The Predators have been who we thought they were through four hard-to-figure Final confrontations during which the home team has managed to hold serve, a worthy would-be champion that sprang from a humble No. 16 seed.
Goaltender Pekka Rinne is Nashville’s best player, and when he’s something less than that the Predators have a hard time winning games.
The foursome of P.K. Subban, Mattias Ekholm, Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis comprise the NHL’s best set of Top-4 Defensemen, and whatever it is the Predators are able to accomplish in all three zones flows through them.
And the stage hasn’t been too big for a team that’s had to rely on relative unknowns (Frederick Gaudreau?) in the wake of losing a high-end forwards (Ryan Johansen and Kevin Fiala).
Nashville didn’t get to within two games of the Cup because of catfish and the country star of the night singing the national anthem.
The Penguins, conversely, haven’t gotten to within two wins of defending their championship by accident.
They’ve overcome injury all season, particularly during a postseason which began without No. 1 goaltender Matt Murray and will end without any on-ice involvement from No. 1 defenseman Kris Letang.
They’ve been more resilient and “scrappy” – head coach Mike Sullivan’s favorite term of endearment – than they have been dominant, and they’ve been resourceful enough to be able to win games in any way the games have demanded from game to game.
And they still have a collection of star power up front that makes them combustible.
The Penguins boast the NHL’s top-four postseason scorers in Evgeni Malkin (26 points), Sidney Crosby (24), Jake Guentzel (20) and Phil Kessel (20) heading into Game 5 on Thursday night.
But one of the reasons the series is tied at two games apiece is the Penguins managed just one goal in Game 3 and one goal in Game 4, and Rinne’s playoffs-leading 1.88 goal-against average had a great deal to do with that.
If that trend continues, the Penguins are in trouble.
Sullivan suspects otherwise, drawing upon a marrow-deep belief forged over the course of seven previous playoff series behind the Penguins’ bench that have all ended on the right side of the handshake.
“We're not going to overthink this as a coaching staff,” he insisted. “We just think we're going to make sure we continue to focus on those things that we can control, and we believe that we have some guys that are due to score some goals.
“They've had some high-quality chances, and the puck hasn't gone in the net for the last couple of games. We believe if we continue to try to do the right things out there, we'll score.”
There was also this from Sullivan in advance of Game 5: “I’ve been around a lot of teams, both as a player and a coach now. This team, I think, has a unique chemistry. I think they enjoy playing for one another. They’ve accomplished a lot in their time together. I believe it’s a competitive advantage of our team.”
In the end, that might be what separates the Penguins from the Predators.
It might not be, but until proven otherwise there’s no reason for the Penguins to believe otherwise.
They’re being pushed to the limit, again.
Their championship pedigree suggests it’s nothing they can’t handle.