NHL: Stanley Cup Final-Nashville Predators at Pittsburgh Penguins
Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

Pens win the cup

Penguins defy all statistics and logic as Stanley Cup Final heads to Game 2

Are the Penguins somehow better off getting outplayed?

NHL: Stanley Cup Final-Nashville Predators at Pittsburgh Penguins
Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports
richmiller

If you’re an optimistic person, you’re probably thinking, the Pens played terribly and still won — if they play like we know, the Preds don’t stand a chance. A pessimist knows there is no possible way the Pens could play that bad again and win.

Whichever way you want to look at it, the Pens got the win Monday night and are up 1-0 in the Stanley Cup Final. So how on Earth did the Pens pull it off? And more importantly, how will their performance translate to the rest of this series?

There were several key matchups to watch as these two teams got set to make a run at the Cup, and more that emerged after Game 1. Let’s see where they stand as they get set for Game 2 on Wednesday night.

Strength vs. Strength

NHL: Nashville Predators at Pittsburgh Penguins
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Pittsburgh’s talented forwards — specifically at center — are in the midst of a heavyweight bout with the Preds’ depth at defense in this series. It’s the two clear-cut strengths of each team, the marquee matchup within the matchup to watch and give Round 1 to the Pens — by default.

At the conclusion of Game 1, if you looked only at the shot totals (26-12 in favor of Nashville) you’d assume the Preds’ defense did the job. Fortunately, the only tally that matters at the end of the game is the number of goals. In Game 1, all four of the Penguins’ centers registered at least one point, with Nick Bonino notching two goals, Evgeni Malkin adding one, Sidney Crosby earning two assists, and Matt Cullen adding one on the game-winning goal.

Nashville defenseman Ryan Ellis scored a goal for the Preds, but the most notable scoring contribution from the Preds’ defense corps actually came when Matthias Ekholm deflected Nick Bonino’s shot into his own goal.

The Preds’ defense was able to limit the Pens’ opportunities, but it wasn’t enough. They couldn’t completely shut the Pens down and most importantly, couldn’t keep them off the scoreboard. Unless their goal is to keep the Pens from shooting the puck at all for 60 minutes, there isn’t much else they can do, especially if they aren’t getting support from their goaltender.

 The Predators vs. themselves

NHL: Stanley Cup Final-Nashville Predators at Pittsburgh Penguins
Don Wright-USA TODAY Sports

A disallowed PK Subban goal for Filip Forsberg being offside by a fraction of an inch is one thing. Sure, when you look at the broad picture, it was probably the most inconsequential moment in a series of very consequential transgressions that led to a Nashville goal. But rules are rules, keep your skate on the ice.

However, the Preds really killed themselves immediately after the overturned goal.

Calle Jarnkrok was called for interference and, during the delayed penalty, James Neal (remember that James Neal who used to always take bad penalties in Pittsburgh?) cross-checked Trevor Daley and got nailed for another minor. So Pittsburgh was handed a 5-on-3 for a full two minutes.

And predictably, the Penguins scored on the ensuing power play to take a 1-0 lead and regain control of the game.

It’s the Stanley Cup Final and the margin for error is about as wide as the gap between Forsberg’s skate and the ice on the overturned goal. One team has a lot of experience with this, the other not so much.

The Predators have been a disciplined team the entire postseason, but they haven’t faced a power play like Pittsburgh’s, which is converting 25.4-percent of their opportunities. If the Preds continue to take ill-advised penalties and inopportune times, it could be exactly what the Penguins need to get an advantage, because it surely isn’t happening at even strength.

The Penguins vs. statistics and logic

NHL: Stanley Cup Final-Nashville Predators at Pittsburgh Penguins
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Predators dominated puck possession at in Game 1, outmatching Pittsburgh 36 to 26 in shot attempts at even strength. As bad as a minus-10 differential sounds, it’s nothing new for the Penguins.

Pittsburgh has actually had five other games this postseason where they were dominated worse than they were in Game 1. They won four of those five games (a combined minus-53 in those four wins), with the loss coming in overtime to Ottawa in Game 1 of the previous series when they were a minus-18.

It doesn’t make sense, does it? And yet it get worse.

The list of teams in NHL history that had fewer than 12 shots in a Stanley Cup Final game and still managed to win: The 2017 Pittsburgh Penguins. That’s all. That’s it. Even crazier is the fact that the game winner came on their first shot in 37 minutes. That’s not exactly a recipe for success.

It’s illogical — maybe insane — to think they could continue earning victories this way. But here they are, just three wins away from another Stanley Cup championship.

Matt Murray vs. Pekka Rinne

NHL: Stanley Cup Final-Nashville Predators at Pittsburgh Penguins
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Murray didn’t do anything special in Game 1. He made the saves he needed to make when the Penguins needed them and, by all accounts, didn’t do anything to lose the game for his team, if only because his team didn’t lose. He was solid, yet unspectacular, but it was enough to put his team in a position to win.

Pekka Rinne, on the other hand, woof.

Rinne entered the series with a 1.70 goals-against average and .941 save percentage — tops in the postseason. Those numbers took a drastic hit after giving up four goals on only 11 shots Monday night. His Game 1 was so bad, well, it was so bad it was the worst goaltending performance in NHL postseason history.

Granted, he didn’t have a chance when the Preds left Conor Sheary wide open on the doorstep for the Pens’ second goal. Nor was there much he could do when Bonino’s one-handed desperation shot went off his defenseman’s leg for the third. But Rinne couldn’t stop the only shot he faced on a 5-on-3 power play to open the scoring for the Pens and was about a month late on his rent to stop Jake Guentzel’s game winner.

The Pens have long had Rinne’s number. He came in with a 1-5-2 career record against them with a 3.57 goals-against average and an .880 save percentage. His lone win was a relief appearance in 2009.

Despite the utter ownage of Rinne, the Pens should probably count on him making at least 70 percent of his saves from here on out, even if he still has never beaten them as a starter.

Home ice vs. home ice

NHL: Stanley Cup Final-Nashville Predators at Pittsburgh Penguins
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Both teams are so good at home, this series won’t truly start until a road team gets a victory in the other team’s barn. Before Game 1, the Preds were very vocal about their goal of getting back to Nashville with at least one win. Now that they’re down 1-0, it puts added pressure on them to get the job done in Game 2.

If the Pens can turn their play around, or perhaps worse for the Preds, find another way to steal Game 2, what does that do to the Preds’ psyche as they head back to Nashville for Game 3?

Stay tuned.