There are coaches who will tell you that a playoff series doesn’t truly start until the road team wins a game.
In the case of the Stanley Cup Final, the first road win will spell the end of the series. The defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins can become the first team to repeat since Detroit in 1998 if they can crack the code of raucous Bridgestone Arena Sunday night in Game 6 against the Nashville Predators.
“We’re just going to try to stay in the moment regardless of whether it needs to be played,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said. “We’re going to try to play the game that gives us the best chance to win.”
That game looks a whole lot like Game 5, in which the Penguins ambushed Nashville early and often, scoring six goals in the first two periods and netting a contentious 6-0 win that gave them a 3-2 series lead.
It looks nothing like Games 1 through 4, in which the Predators controlled the flow of play most of the time. While Pittsburgh created really good scoring chances in the first two periods of Game 4, it was still outshot in each of the first four games, sometimes by a lot in terms of total shots.
Nashville looked nothing like that team Thursday night, instead imitating deer frozen by headlights. Goalie Pekka Rinne lasted one period, undone by poor defense in front of him and the relentless Penguins attack.
During the 72-hour break between Games 2 and 3, Predators coach Peter Laviolette was asked repeatedly if he intended to bench Rinne. That line of questioning has been squashed during this 72-hour hiatus, in part because Laviolette wouldn’t entertain it, and also because Rinne has simply been so dominant at home.
He’s 9-1 in this year’s playoffs at Bridgestone Arena, ceding just 15 goals and often standing on his head with spectacular saves like the ones he made in Game 4 that led Nashville to a 4-1 victory.
“He’s the same every day,” Laviolette said of Rinne. “He works hard every day. His demeanor seems the same to me. We’ve got to do a better job in front of him. I know there’s things we can do that can support our goaltender better.”
One thing can be accomplished simply by playing at home. In addition to the deafening crowd that seems to act as an extra skater, wearing the gold uniforms gives the Predators the final change. That allows Laviolette to use his top defense pairings more in faceoff situations to better counter the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
But what if Nashville’s Big Four defensively becomes a Big Three? Ryan Ellis, who left Game 5 in the second period with an undisclosed injury, didn’t practice on Saturday. If he’s not able to go, Roman Josi, P.K. Subban and Mattias Ekholm may have to soak up extra minutes.
Regardless, the Predators will be a formidable foe on friendly ice, especially now that they’re in win-or-else mode. No one knows that better than the team trying to knock them out.
“We have to approach it like the team that’s playing for its life tomorrow,” defenseman Ron Hainsey said. “Everybody’s focus will be on getting off to a real good start because if we don’t, it could be a rough night.”