Hockey is a funny sport, isn’t it?
After dropping Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, the Nashville Predators won’t be laughing, but neither should the Pittsburgh Penguins.
In the playoffs, a team has to earn every inch of ice. Nothing is a given, and no game is deserved. That’s the idea, anyway. Yet, it certainly feels like the Predators deserved a better fate in this game, doesn’t it? For about 50 minutes, the Predators had the Penguins on their heels. They were handily beating them to the puck, out-hustling and out-skating them in every way. Their defense showed everyone in Pittsburgh why they are the talk of the town in these playoffs, as they held a very good Pittsburgh team to ZERO shots on goal in the second period and most of the third.
While they were skating around the Penguins and keeping them off the stat sheet, the Predators scored three consecutive goals. They were looking dangerous, picking up right where they left off in Round 3. If you stop reading this article right now (please don’t), you would assume that all ended well for the team from Nashville.
Unfortunately for them, the Predators lost the game 5-3, and the Penguins stole a win they didn’t earn.
Officiating Woes Continue
Every fan has their gripes about officiating in the NHL. That’s just what we do. It’s part of the fun. What’s not fun, however, is when the officiating becomes the story, and that’s exactly what happened in Game 1.
For the first 7 minutes of play, Nashville didn’t look like the new team in town. They didn’t show any sign of Game 1 jitters; they looked decisive. With each quality chance against Penguins goaltender Matt Murray, the Predators kept the crowd out of the game. Then Nashville’s star defenseman P.K. Subban finessed a pin-pointed wrist shot into the net to open the scoring for the series. However, Pittsburgh challenged the call on the ice, saying that Filip Forsberg was offsides earlier in the play.
After the referees reviewed the call on their little tablet, they deemed that Forsberg’s right skate was off the ice before he had possession of the puck (even if it was hovering behind the blue line). Just like that, the call on the ice was overturned, and Subban’s goal was erased from the books.
This is absolutely the wrong call, and instead of a goal continuing the momentum for Nashville, the momentum was handed over to the Penguins.
Now, I’m all for getting the call right, but the enhanced replay showed Forsberg’s foot was actually on the ice. So, as it happens more often than not, the referees didn’t get even it right upon review, which defeats the whole purpose of a review. What should it matter if Forsberg’s foot is a half-an-inch off the ice or not as long as it’s behind the blue line? The rule is flawed.
Heck, the play should not have been reviewed at all! The offsides call in question occurred about 15 seconds prior to Subban’s goal. During this time, Penguins defenseman Ron Hainsey took possession of the puck but failed to clear the zone. This repossession by Hainsey should negate the effect any supposed “offside” by the Predators had on the Subban goal.
Thousands of missed calls go unnoticed throughout every game, and yet a fraction of an inch (that had nothing to do with the goal itself) gets to be reviewed for technicality’s sake? Give me a break.
The crowd was back into it thanks to the call reversal. In fact, they cheered more for the officiating than for their own team during the first 10 minutes of the game. A little later, a frustrated Nashville team took two penalties resulting in a 5-on-3 for Pittsburgh, in which Evgeni Malkin put one past Pekka Rinne to give the Penguins the lead. But should that really been a penalty on Calle Jarnkrok?
Calle Jarnkrok was called for a penalty here… pic.twitter.com/sWABbcx709
— AtoZSports Nashville (@AtoZSports) May 30, 2017
Based on the replay, Patric Hornqvist seemed to already be falling down on his own. Jarnkrok never actually touched him, at least not enough to warrant an interference call from the official. You have to wonder what these refs are thinking.
Speaking of interference, where is the call against Crosby, who threw an elbow at Nashville defenseman Mattias Ekholm away from the puck that helped set up the Malkin goal? Of course, Crosby haters will chalk that up to some sort of NHL conspiracy, but even the most neutral of hockey observers knows that lesser penalty calls have been made before.
The only consistency with the NHL officials is how inconsistent they are, and that’s what is frustrating.
For 10 minutes of the first period, the Penguins played the kind of hockey you would expect from a defending champion. Their goals by Malkin and Conor Sheary were the results of textbook puck-movement from a well-oiled machine. The goal by Nick Bonino, on the other hand, was a gift from Ekholm, who accidentally put it in his own net past Rinne, but good things happen when you throw the puck to the net sometimes, right?
Despite this, the Predators didn’t pack it in. There was a lot of time left, and they found their game again at the start of the 2nd period. This Predators team is just too talented, and their head coach too experienced, to let the wheels fall off that quickly. They put on a clinic against the Penguins. A sense of dread was in the air in Pittsburgh, despite their team having a three-goal lead. That’s how good the Predators played (and how fortunate the Penguins were to hang on). Eventually, the Predators found the back of the net, and they climbed back to tie the game in the third period after a great forecheck by Austin Watson, who beat two Penguins to the puck and fed Frederick Gaudreau who buried his first goal of the playoffs.
“If we just play the way we did, minus some of the mistakes that we made, I like our chances,” said Subban after the game. “This is going to be a long series.”
Rinne’s Rough Night
No question Pekka Rinne has been the Predators’ best player all postseason, but he wasn’t sharp Monday night. As Nashville kept Pittsburgh off the shot-counter, Rinne could’ve set up a lounge chair in the crease. The shots weren’t coming his way, and for a goaltender, this can be both a blessing and a curse.
In hockey, there’s always a “Catch-22.” Goalies like getting hit with 100 mph slap shots. It keeps them mentally in the game. When shots aren’t coming, and saves aren’t being made, it’s easy to lose focus. For 37 minutes, the Penguins didn’t send a puck on net. For 37 minutes, Rinne barely had to break a sweat, and even the most experienced goaltenders can lose their rhythm. Sometimes the puck doesn’t go your way, but maybe Rinne would’ve preferred a few to get in the groove.
With just three minutes in the third remaining, Jake Guentzel, Pittsburgh’s latest star at center, delivered a perfect shot over Rinne’s glove hand, who seemed surprised by the release.
“At the end of the day, my job is to make the save,” said Rinne, “and at the end of the game I’m disappointed I couldn’t help my team.”
That game-winning goal, by the way, was Pittsburgh’s first shot on goal in 37 minutes, and they won the game having only put 12 shots on goal.
Yeah, hockey’s weird.
Jeff Yerger covers the Nashville Predators for THW. He once accidentally drew on one of Henrik Lundqvist’s suits (just don’t tell Hank). He is also a sucker for IPAs and saxophone solos. Find him on Twitter @jyergs.