PITTSBURGH — Things were going pretty well for Nashville through 40 minutes on Wednesday night.
Then, the final 20 happened.
In a stunning surge — or collapse, depending where your allegiances lie — the Pittsburgh Penguins exploded for three goals in the first 3:28 of the third period to beat the Nashville Predators 4-1 in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final.
Jake Guentzel played the hero, scoring Pittsburgh’s opening goal before adding the eventual game-winner 10 seconds into the final frame. The GWG was also was the fastest goal to start a period in Penguins playoff history.
Scott Wilson and Evgeni Malkin also found the back of the net, the latter chasing beleaguered Preds netminder Pekka Rinne from the game. Rinne has now surrendered eight goals on 36 shots in the Cup Final, giving him a ghastly .777 save percentage — and giving the Predators some major questions in net as the series shifts back to Nashville.
One of the guys primarily responsible for Rinne’s struggles?
The 22-year-old rookie has three of those aforementioned eight goals, and continues to etch his name into the history books. With 12 goals this postseason, he now ranks second all-time in goals by a rookie in a single playoff, two back of Dino Ciccarelli’s 14 in 1981. He also set an American-born rookie record for goals and points (19), surpassing the mark Joe Mullen hit 35 years ago.
What’s crazy about Guentzel is that he’s scored those three goals on just four shots. It’s very emblematic of Pittsburgh’s offensive output thus far.
The Penguins have been extremely opportunistic this series, a trend that’s been on display all postseason long. Tonight marked the 15th time in 21 games they’ve been outshot, but it’s hardly been an issue, something head coach Mike Sullivan alluded to after a Game 1 victory in which they scored five times on just 12 shots.
“I think our team has an ability to win games different ways,” said Sullivan. “I think one of the strengths of this team is the quick strike-ability. We can be opportunistic. When we get high-quality chances, we have some people that can finish.”
In many ways, Game 2 was like Game 1. The Preds out-shot the Pens and, for long stretches, out-possessed them. There was a disallowed goal due to a successful offside challenge — though it was Pittsburgh that had a tally wiped out this time, with Nashville doing the wiping — and there was another short, furious burst of scoring.
In the series opener, the Pens scored three times in 4:11 in the opening period. They did it even faster tonight.
The Preds are hoping most, if not all, of these trends will cease to continue on Saturday, when the series shifts to Bridgestone. They can take confidence from their great home record these playoffs — 7-1 in Nashville, with no regulation losses — and the old adage that no series truly begins until a home team loses.
That said, home ice won’t mean a thing if the Penguins continue to be as opportunistic as they’ve been.
Or if Rinne continues to struggle like he has.
Matt Murray had a terrific night in goal, stopping 33 of 34 shots… P.K. Subban and Evgeni Malkin engaged in a rare fight late in the third period, as frustrations boiled over… Pontus Aberg provided one of the few Nashville highlights on the night, with his terrific solo goal in the first period…Teams winning Game 2 have gone on to hoist the Stanley Cup 74 percent of the time since the final went to the best-of-seven format in 1939 (57-of-77 series), but only at a 50 pecent clip over the past eight years (4-4).