PITTSBURGH — When they left Pittsburgh last week, the Nashville Predators were in “nasty” 2-0 hole and their chances in the Stanley Cup final were looking grim.
That deficit is no more. Depth, defence and the resurgence of Pekka Rinne spurred the Preds to even up the best-of-seven series in Nashville, and now they return to Steeltown with a chance to jump in front of the defending champs when Game 5 rolls around on Thursday night.
“Our guys were pretty confident after Game 2,” head coach Peter Laviolette told reporters in Nashville on Tuesday afternoon. ”I know it’s a nasty hole to be in. 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 (different) results in both those games.”
Eight different players scored for the Predators in the two home wins, including a pair from Frederick Gaudreau. The undrafted centre had only nine games of NHL experience before the playoffs in which he had a single assist.
Gaudreau did score 25 goals for Milwaukee of the American Hockey League during the regular season, but only joined the Predators post-season lineup in the Western Conference final when injuries knocked captain Mike Fisher and No. 1 centre Ryan Johansen from the lineup.
“Clearly the stage is not too big for him,” Fisher said after Gaudreau scored the go-ahead goal and game-winner in Game 4 on Monday night.
The 24-year-old, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, became the second player ever to score his first three career goals in the Stanley Cup final, joining John Harms of the Chicago Blackhawks in 1944.
He’s far from the only unexpected contributor for Nashville during these playoffs.
Rookie Pontus Aberg has a pair of goals and five points after mustering only a single goal and assist during 15 regular season games. Colton Sissons, absorbing big minutes in Johansen’s absence, has more points in 20 post-season games (12) than he did in 58 regular-season games (10).
The vaunted Nashville defence continues to make contributions with Roman Josi and Mattias Ekholm both scoring in wins at Bridgestone Arena, where the Preds boast a 9-1 record in these playoffs.
Their two scariest remaining offensive players only just got in on the action in Game 4. Viktor Arvidsson, who popped a career-best 31 goals in the regular season, scored only third goal of the playoffs Monday to snap a 15-game drought. Filip Forsberg, the most dangerous Predator and someone who also notched 31 this season, also landed only his first of the final in Game 4 and it came into an empty net.
Nineteen different players have scored at least one for the Preds in the playoffs, 14 have at least two, and 11 have at least one game-winning goal.
“You’re at a point in the season where you sink or swim — guys have to step up,” Laviolette said. ”Those are your only two choices.”
The Preds also contained the Penguins in the wins, holding them to just two goals while snuffing out six power-play attempts.
Pittsburgh, which scored more goals and peppered more shots than any other team in hockey this season, did generate some of their best looks in Game 4 — a result of their players slipping behind the Nashville defence, according to Laviolette.
Sidney Crosby scored the Penguins only goal that way, beating Rinne on a first period breakaway.
Crosby was coming off a shot-less Game 3, however, and was joined in that regard by Evgeni Malkin, the NHL’s highest scoring player this spring (26 points). Malkin didn’t have a point in either of the Preds two victories nor did high-scoring winger Phil Kessel.
Nashville successfully deployed P.K. Subban and Ekholm primarily against Malkin and the duo of Josi and Ryan Ellis against Crosby.
“They both have their hands full,” Laviolette said. ”The two home games (in Nashville), I thought they’ve done a good job.”
Maybe the biggest difference to the Predators though is goaltending.
Pegged for eight goals on only 36 shots in dropping the first two games, Rinne has rediscovered the form which helped the Preds storm through the first three rounds. The 34-year-old stopped 50-of-52 shots in Nashville’s two wins, including breakaway stops of Crosby and Chris Kunitz.
Suddenly, it’s not Laviolette getting questioned about his goaltending plans, but Mike Sullivan after Matt Murray’s somewhat uneven performance in Music City.
“It doesn’t need to be (a) highlight reel save, but when you make a timely save especially, it really is a confidence boost,” Rinne said.
Only 13 teams have ever come back to win Games 3 and 4 of the final after dropping the first two. The Preds will try to become the fifth to ultimately win the Cup.