Pen­guins head home up­beat de­spite two losses in Nashville

The Washington Times Daily - - SPORTS - BY WILL GRAVES

PITTS­BURGH | The goals that came so eas­ily to the Pitts­burgh Pen­guins dur­ing the first two games of the Stan­ley Cup Fi­nal — the ones that ar­rived in bunches and seemed to sig­nal an em­phatic end to Pekka Rinne’s spectacular play­off run — have dis­ap­peared.

Across six pe­ri­ods in Nashville, the NHL’s high­est-scor­ing team man­aged to beat Rinne just twice as the Preda­tors ral­lied to tie the se­ries. Yet Pen­guins coach Mike Sul­li­van hardly seems frus­trated head­ing into Game 5 on Thurs­day night back home in Pitts­burgh.

Sul­li­van is 7-0 in se­ries with the Pen­guins, and the way he sees it, his team’s in­abil­ity to solve Rinne in Games 3 and 4 had lit­tle to do with lack of ef­fort or op­por­tu­ni­ties. It had ev­ery­thing to do with a re­mark­able per­for­mance by the 34-year-old goal­tender.

Where do you want to start? With Rinne’s no-look left pad stop on Jake Guentzel early in the sec­ond pe­riod of a tie game on Mon­day night? Maybe the one about a minute later when Rinne de­nied Chris Ku­nitz on a break­away? Or maybe the div­ing blocker stop on Guentzel just be­fore the mid­way point, the one that pre­served Nashville’s lead on the way to a 4-1 vic­tory?

Sul­li­van un­der­stands it’s easy to look at the re­sult and be

dis­cour­aged. That’s not his job. The coach who has made “play the right way” part of the fran­chise’s lex­i­con is more fo­cused on the process. The Pen­guins didn’t pro­duce much in Games 1 and 2 and some­how won go­ing away. They “got to their game” (an­other of Sul­li­van’s fa­vorite mantras) re­peat­edly in Game 4 only to lose.

It’s hockey. It hap­pens.

“We be­lieve that we have some guys that are due to score some goals here,” Sul­li­van said Tues­day. “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.”

Game 4 marked the sixth time in their last 11 games the Pen­guins have scored just one goal, com­pared to just twice in 24 play­off games last spring.

Pitts­burgh has sur­vived any­way thanks in part to a re­silience that has been their hall­mark un­der Sul­li­van. When lim­ited to one goal dur­ing the 2016 post­sea­son, they won the fol­low­ing game. When the Pen­guins had just three goals dur­ing the first three games of the Eastern Con­fer­ence fi­nals against Ot­tawa last month, they scored 10 over the next two to take control.

“It just comes down to bury­ing your chances,” said Pen­guins cap­tain Sid­ney Crosby, who picked up his first goal of the se­ries in Game 4.

Some­thing the Pen­guins did more than any­body dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son when it led the NHL in scor­ing. Pitts­burgh is av­er­ag­ing 3.0 goals per game in the play­offs, the same as the Preda­tors. It’s not a co­in­ci­dence they’re the last two teams stand­ing, both two wins away from a cham­pi­onship.

What the Pen­guins are say­ing now sounds an aw­ful lot like what the Preda­tors were say­ing af­ter com­ing up empty in Pitts­burgh to start the fi­nal. Nashville was ev­ery bit the de­fend­ing champ’s equal in the open­ing two games only to be un­done by a pair of dom­i­nant bursts by the Pen­guins. The Preda­tors weren’t shaken then, much like the Pen­guins aren’t shaken now.

“I know it’s a nasty hole to be in,” Nashville coach Peter Lavi­o­lette said Tues­day. “But we re­ally liked the way we played in Game 1. We thought we played a real com­pet­i­tive game in Game 2. Could have had re­sults in both those games.”

While Pitts­burgh cen­ter Matt Cullen said there are no moral vic­to­ries dur­ing the post­sea­son, the way the Pen­guins were able to gen­er­ate odd-man rushes and stretch the ice were en­cour­ag­ing. They got the puck every­where it needed to go, just not in the net. Though that style also gen­er­ated op­por­tu­ni­ties for the Preda­tors at the other end, don’t ex­pect Pitts­burgh to try to rein it in. That’s now how they got to the cusp off back-to-back ti­tles.

“If any­thing we just need to press a lit­tle more,” Cullen said.

Well, ev­ery­thing ex­cept the panic but­ton. Though Sul­li­van ex­per­i­mented lib­er­ally with his line com­bi­na­tions — some­thing he fre­quently does when try­ing to break the Pen­guins out of a funk — there ap­pear to be no plans to make a change in net.

Asked twice Tues­day if he planned on re-eval­u­at­ing his goal­tend­ing sit­u­a­tion af­ter Matt Mur­ray al­lowed eight goals in Nashville, Sul­li­van stressed “we haven’t lost games be­cause of our goal­tend­ing.”

The is­sues have been at the other end of the ice, where Rinne sud­denly has his groove back. For now any­way. If the first four games of an un­pre­dictable se­ries have dic­tated any­thing, it’s that mo­men­tum is just one shot away.

“We found a dif­fer­ent level (in Game 4),” Crosby said. “If we con­tinue to get those chances, they’ll go in for us.”

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Pitts­burgh Pen­guins, the NHL’s high­est scor­ing team, man­aged just two goals against Nashville Preda­tors goalie Pekka Rinne in Stan­ley Cup Fi­nals Games 3 and 4.

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