When Evgeni Malkin’s hockey career ends, perhaps he will have a future as a prognosticator.
“We’ll use our speed and win the game,” Malkin said prior to Game 5. “It’s a good time to show your best game, because there’s only three games left and we have two, three months summertime.”
Right he was, as the Penguins came out with energy and an edge in jumping out to a 3-0 lead in the first period, then went on to play their best, most complete game of the Stanley Cup Final.
But Malkin had more to say, this time on the topic of linemate Phil Kessel, who had been looking for a goal since Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final versus Ottawa.
“He score. It’s his time to score,” Malkin said. “We know he’s a great player, and he play tough situation. And now it’s time for leadership to show good games. Time to score.
“We play at home. It’s our building, our emotion. Main people, we need big game and help team to win.”
Just like Chris Kunitz in the two-OT, Game 7 thriller versus Ottawa, Kessel made good on Malkin’s hunch, scoring the Penguins’ fifth goal at 8:02 of the second period.
Kessel also contributed two assists on the night in a 6-0 win that, after dropping Games 3 and 4 in Nashville, saw the Penguins looking an awful lot like the defending Stanley Cup champions again.
All of Pittsburgh’s “main people” stepped up with big games. Captain Sidney Crosby established the tone by splitting the D for a scoring chance on his first shift, then drawing a penalty on the rebound to give the Penguins an opportunity with the man-advantage just 50 seconds in.
“I think when you can start a game that way, it puts a team on their heels,” head coach Mike Sullivan said. “I think Sid really understands the opportunity this team has, and he’s not taking anything for granted. He’s as driven an athlete as I’ve seen; as hungry as I’ve ever seen a player. He sees the opportunity in front of us, and he’s doing everything within his power to try to help us be successful.”
“When the captain drives the middle, splits two guys and hits one off the post, and we get the power play because of his second effort on the puck, that’s something that drives everybody to try and be better,” Kunitz said. “Go out there and work.”
And go to work they did, starting with that early power play.
For the first time since a 5-on-3 advantage way back in Game 1, it came through, just 1:31 in. Defenseman Justin Schultz delivered a long-range blast that went five-hole twice – first through the legs of forward Austin Watson, then goaltender Pekka Rinne.
Bryan Rust and Malkin joined the party to build the 3-0, first-period lead. Malkin’s late-period goal at 19:49 ended Rinne’s night, as Predators head coach Peter Laviolette turned to backup netminder Juuse Saros to start the second.
Unfortunately for Saros, the Penguins weren’t done.
Conor Sheary, back on Crosby’s wing, celebrated his 25th birthday with the Penguins’ fourth goal just 1:19 into the second period. Kessel added his midway through the frame and, in a nod to just how much things were going the Penguins’ way, even defensive-minded blueliner Ron Hainsey got in on the scoring. It was set up by – who else? – Malkin.
“We score pretty quick, but we never stop,” Malkin said. “We keep going. It’s our game.”
“I think our players had a will to win,” Sullivan said. “And, when they play inspired hockey the way they did tonight and execute the way they did tonight, I think we’re a competitive team and a dangerous team.
“I give my players so much credit for their preparation, their determination. Everybody realized the importance of this one.”
In addition to all of that offense, the game was marked with plenty of moments that made it clear that, five games into the series with the Stanley Cup on the line, these teams have developed a pretty strong dislike for one another.
It took all of about two minutes in for the contest to get chippy. And, along with contributing three assists on a night that will be remembered as one of the most dominating performances of his playoff career, Crosby got physical. The Penguins captain had a particularly noteworthy incident with Predators star defenseman P.K. Subban, as their rivalry continued to escalate.
That earned both players coincidental minors, which baffled many, Laviolette included.
“I don’t understand the call,” the Predators coach said. “I saw my guy get his head cross-checked into the ice 10 times. I don’t even know what he did. I disagree with the call.”
“He lost his stick and was doing some UFC move on my foot,” Crosby said. “I don’t know what he was trying to do, but I was trying to get out of there. He was just trying to hold me down. I don’t know what he was trying to do to my ankle; I was in some kind of lock he had going on there.”
With 8:28 remaining in the game, all heck broke loose, with Malkin, Carl Hagelin and Patric Hornqvist all pairing off with Nashville fighting partners. There was more chaos with just 33.3 seconds left, as Predators forward Colton Sissons cross-checked Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta in the face, leading to fighting majors and misconducts on both sides.
The loss dropped Rinne to 0-6 in his regular season and playoff career in Pittsburgh, with a 5.15 goals-against average and .822 save percentage.
“We’ve got to be better in front of him,” Laviolette said. “If you go back and look at the goals and the way they were scored, you give up a power play early on. The next two, we need better coverage. I don’t think that, necessary, they were bad goals. Our guys have a tremendous amount of confidence in him.”
Penguins goalie Matt Murray, meanwhile, posted a 24-save shutout, justifying Sullivan’s faith in going back to him after two subpar games in Nashville.
“Of course you want to win every game,” Murray said. “So, sure, you want a good bounce-back game after a bad one. But, at the end of the day, you just prepare the same way each and every day. I’m definitely a competitive guy, but I try to take things one step at a time and not get too far ahead of myself.”
Now one win away from the chance to be back-to-back Stanley Cup champions, the Penguins head to Music City in hopes of being the first road team to get a win in the series. Like the Penguins, who improved to 10-3 at PPG Paints Arena, the Predators have a 9-1 home record in the playoffs this year.
“Great game tonight, but it’s still not done,” Malkin said. “We need one more game, one more win, and we go to Nashville.
“Last two games [there] we not play great and we understand it’s a loud building, but I think after this win we have more confidence and a good feeling.”