PITTSBURGH — Welcome, friend. Fancy a beer? Perhaps a catfish po’boy, provided your appetite didn’t dissolve after seeing all those piscine guts strewn across the ice? In any case, find a seat. Settle down. Digesting this funhouse mirror of a match might take some time.
Let us begin at the end of Game 1 in this 2017 Stanley Cup Final, with the cherubic rookie raising both arms and PPG Paints Arena rattling back to life. Exactly 37 minutes had elapsed with Pittsburgh’s shot counter stuck on eight, and there must have been moments when even the defending champions felt like the drought would stretch into Tuesday morning. Then came Jake Guentzel, scoreless in his past eight, sprung into space and hoping to heave something—anything—onto Nashville netminder Pekka Rinne. Inside the left face-off circle, Guentzel reared back and fired. The puck screamed into the top corner, the entire building followed suit, and…
Well, hold up. Let’s rewind, back to that eighth on-goal attempt, less an actual shot than Penguins center Nick Bonino arriving at the arcade with a sleeve of quarters and pulling the plunger on the pinball machine. “It's funny,” Bonino said later, after his empty-net heave had clinched a 5-3 win and a 1-0 series lead, “you try to get the perfect shot off a lot. Then you just throw it at the net with one hand and it goes in...We'll take 'em how we can get 'em, for sure.”
Certainly Bonino banking the puck off Predators defenseman Mattias Ekholm’s knee—and then past Rinne—with 17 seconds left in the first period applies. So does Evgeni Malkin skimming a two-man advantage tally off the underside of Rinne’s glove, and Conor Sheary knocking a weakside one-timer into a yawning cage 65 seconds later. This all left Nashville trailing 3-0 at intermission, stupefied perhaps but not yet subdued. “Nothing surprises me in this game anymore, honestly,” center Colton Sissons said. “You just never know, man.”
Oh? Take another sip. Still plenty more to cover.
Like P.K. Subban’s overturned goal in the first period. The defenseman’s invisible arrow had already been launched into the upper bowl when Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan challenged for offsides—not because Subban had returned late to the offensive zone before teeing a wrister past goalie Matt Murray, but because Filip Forsberg had barely lifted his skate blade above the blue line upon entry earlier in Nashville's possession.
How, again, had NHL commissioner Gary Bettman evaluated the NHL’s video review process during his annual press conference earlier in the evening? That it has “worked exactly as we hoped it would"? And so while Forsberg was perhaps offside by the book, by the slimmest of margins, the ruling also clearly leached some life from the Predators. As Sissons put it later, “That sucked.”
Unlike the catfish that hurtled over the glass and shed some of its innards mid-flight, though, the Predators weren’t yet dead. After an arena worker quickly shoveled the creature from the blue line, the underdog Western Conference champs, the third No. 8 seed to reach the final since ‘94, set about storming back. Down 3-0 at the time, early into the second, Nashville finally broke through on defenseman Ryan Ellis’s power play goal at 8:21. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, would soon become the first Stanley Cup team to last an entire period without a single shot since the league began tracking that stat a half-century ago, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. “It was a little weird,” Sheary said. “[But if] we can play our worst game and still come out with a win, that’s a good sign.”
And now for the bad signs: With Malkin shelved for slashing, Nashville defenseman Roman Josi dropped down and punched a one-timer toward the crease, where the puck deflected off Sissons’s leg—knee karma—and beat Murray. Three and a half minutes later, after the Predators successfully killed Subban’s delay-of-game minor, yeoman’s work along the glass from Austin Watson freed Frederick Gaudreau for the tying strike in the slot. “I know you never think you're going to blow a three-goal lead,” Bonino said. “When we did, we kind of knew it was coming. It wasn't like it snuck up on us.”
“We weren’t very good,” Sullivan said. “You know, we weren’t very good.”
No, these aren't quite the juggernaut Penguins of last spring, rampaging with their HBK line and riding Kris Letang for a half-hour each night. Now, Letang watches while healing from neck surgery. Now, his teammates have been outshot in 14 of 20 this postseason. Now, they are nonetheless three wins away from becoming the first repeat champs of the cap era. “You know,” Nashville coach Peter Laviolette said, “I'd rather be up 1-0 and having my guys say we stole [the game]. It not about that. That’s something for midyear, whether you still want to be playing right.”
Need one last nightcap? Maybe crack another for Predators general manager David Poile. He’s helmed the franchise since its birth two decades ago, waited all that time to reach this stage. Now he’s standing outside the visiting dressing room, working his gum and looking forlorn. Nearby, his players took some solace from outshooting Pittsburgh 26-12. And from generally controlling Game 1, that three-goal, 4:11 stretch in the first period notwithstanding. “Right now we’re all disappointed,” Josi said. “But we can be confident about our game.”
And yet, amid Monday night’s bushel of bizarre, only one true conclusion could be drawn. “They won,” Poile said. “So…”