Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan watches along with his players during the final minutes of the third period in Game 4 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Finals against the Nashville Predators Monday, June 5, 2017, in Nashville, Tenn. The Predators won 4-1 to tie the series 2-2. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
PITTSBURGH (AP) — 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 and 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 reevaluating 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.”