Predators defense facing tough task
Nashville, Tenn. — The Predators have shut down the likes of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, Vladimir Tarasenko and Ryan Getzlaf this postseason.
They have slowed down Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Stopping them completely? Even Nashville defenders Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm and All-Star P.K. Subban are susceptible to an off night as they find out just how hard it is to keep track of Pittsburgh’s superstar forwards.
“It just seems to be like every second game, they’re talking about how good we play defense and then the other game they talk about how good they are as an offense,” Ekholm said Friday. “And that’s just going to be like (that). It’s world-class players. We can’t shut them down game after game.”
The Predators need another great defensive performance Sunday night in Game 6 or they will watch Pittsburgh celebrate a second straight Stanley Cup championship on their ice, in front of their frenzied “Smashville” fans, catfish and all. Pittsburgh took a 3-2 lead Thursday night by routing Nashville 6-0 in a game that did more than just put the Pens a win from the title.
Ellis, who plays with Josi as Nashville’s top defensive pair, skated only 10 minutes, 44 seconds during the loss. He lasted just two shifts into the second period before he went to the bench in pain.
Nashville coach Peter Laviolette gave no update on Ellis on Friday. His teammates weren’t sharing any information either. Whether Laviolette will start goalie Pekka Rinne isn’t a question despite the 34-year-old Finn giving up three goals on nine shots before being pulled after the first period. Not with Rinne 9-1 at home this postseason.
The Predators will have center Colton Sissons for Game 6 after the NHL automatically reviewed his cross-check of Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta’s face inside the final minute of Game 6. Sissons was given a match penalty, triggering the review.
Not having Sissons would have been a blow to Nashville’s depth at forward with center Ryan Johansen and left wing Kevin Fiala out injured. Instead, his penalty was just one of 14 given to the Predators with 10 handed out to Pittsburgh for a total of 100 penalty minutes.
The six goals allowed were a postseason high for Nashville, which had allowed five goals only twice, with one an empty-netter by Anaheim.
Nashville still is allowing just 2.19 goals per game, but the Predators are being stretched by the NHL’s top scoring team. Crosby, Malkin, Phil Kessel and rookie Jake Guentzel are the top four scorers this postseason. Crosby set up the first goal by Pittsburgh 91 seconds into the game Thursday night.
Ekholm said the Predators tried to answer almost too quickly.
“Then they scored another one, and it just becomes loose,” Ekholm said. “That’s going to happen. We play 20-something games in the playoffs, I don’t think we’ve had one bad game before (Thursday) night so far, and … it’s going to happen. All we can do is learn from it and go and get better.”
Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan thinks his Penguins have gotten better, calling Game 5 the best they’ve played yet in this series. He also isn’t worried about the Penguins getting overconfident with a chance to win the Stanley Cup on Sunday night.
“I believe this team has a certain maturity to it, and … it always starts with our leadership,” Sullivan said. “I think they understand how these series go and how, from one game to the next, we have to reset the mindset and just be ready to play that game right in front of us.”
This is the first time Nashville has faced elimination this postseason after sweeping Chicago, beating St. Louis in six games and then Anaheim in six to claim the Western Conference title.
“We need to play a better game,” Laviolette said. “We’ve proven that we can and we have in the past, and there’s a lot of confidence that we will in a couple days.”
Stanley Cup Finals
Nashville vs. Pittsburgh
Penguins lead series 3-2
Game 1: Pittsburgh 5-3
Game 2: Pittsburgh 4-1
Game 3: Nashville 5-1
Game 4: Nashville 4-1
Game 5: Pittsburgh 6-0
Sunday: at Nashville, 8
x-Wednesday: at Pittsburgh, 8
x-If necessary; All games on NBC and CBC