PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins rarely tested the hottest goaltender in the playoffs in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final against Nashville.
They beat Pekka Rinne anyway.
Rookie Jake Guentzel fired the puck past Rinne with 3:17 left in regulation to put the Penguins ahead to stay in a back-and-forth 5-3 victory on Monday night.
Guentzel snapped an eight-game goalless drought to help the defending champions escape after blowing a three-goal lead.
Nick Bonino scored twice for the Penguins. Conor Sheary scored his first of the playoffs and Evgeni Malkin scored his eighth. The Penguins won despite putting just 12 shots on goal. Matt Murray finished with 23 saves for the Penguins, who used the first coach’s challenge in Final history to wipe out an early Nashville goal and held on despite going an astonishing 37 minutes at one point without a shot.
“I think at the end of the day we’re up 1-0,” Bonino said. “We had a good first, we had a terrible second and we were terrible in the third. I don’t think it’s Xs and Os. We’ve got to work harder, compete a little harder, but we got some timely goals.”
Game 2 is Wednesday night in Pittsburgh.
Ryan Ellis, Colton Sissons and Frederick Gaudreau scored for the Predators. Rinne stopped just seven shots.
The Penguins had all of three days to get ready for the final following a draining slog through the Eastern Conference that included a pair of Game 7 victories, the second a double-overtime thriller against Ottawa last Thursday.
Pittsburgh downplayed the notion it was fatigued, figuring adrenaline and a shot at making history would make up for any lack of jump while playing their 108th game in the last calendar year.
Maybe, but the Penguins looked a step behind at the outset. The Predators, who crashed the NHL’s biggest stage for the first time behind Rinne and a group of talented defenseman, were hardly intimidated by the stakes, the crowd or the defending champions, trying to become the first repeat winner since Detroit in 1998.
All the guys from “Smashville” have to show for it is their first deficit of the playoffs on a night a fan threw a catfish onto the ice to try and give the Predators a taste of home.
The Penguins, who led the league in scoring, stressed before Game 1 that the best way to keep the Predators at bay was by taking the puck and spending copious amounts of time around Rinne. It didn’t happen, mostly because Nashville’s forecheck pinned the Penguins in their own end. Clearing attempts were knocked down or outright swiped, tilting the ice heavily in front of Murray.
Yet Pittsburgh managed to build a quick 3-0 lead anyway thanks to a fortunate bounce and some quick thinking by Penguins video coordinator Andy Saucier. Part of his job title is to alert coach Mike Sullivan when to challenge a call. The moment came 12:47 into the first when P.K. Subban sent a slap shot by Murray that appeared to give the Predators the lead.
Sullivan used his coach’s challenge, arguing Nashville forward Filip Forsberg was offside. A lengthy review indicated Forsberg’s right skate was in the air as he brought the puck into a zone, a no-no.
“The impact of that moment and then the chain of events that happened after that with the penalty kills I think changed the course of the game,” Nashville coach Peter Laviolette said.
The decision gave the Penguins all the wiggle room they needed to take charge. Malkin scored on a 5-on-3 15:32 into the first, Sheary made it 2-0 just 65 seconds later and when Bonino’s innocent centering pass smacked off Nashville defenseman Mattias Ekholm’s left knee and by Rinne just 17 seconds before the end of the period, Pittsburgh was in full command.
It looked like a repeat of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals against Ottawa, when the Penguins poured in four goals in the first period of a 7-0 rout.
Nashville, unlike the Senators, didn’t bail. Instead, they rallied and took over the game.
Ellis scored the first goal by a Predator in a Stanley Cup Final 8:21 into the second and Nashville kept Rinne downright bored at the other end. Pittsburgh didn’t manage a shot on net in the second period, the first time it’s happened in a playoff game in franchise history — and the first such period by any team in a Final game since the NHL began tracking shots on goal in 1958.
Nashville kept coming. Sissons beat Murray 10:06 into the third and Gaudreau tied it just after a fruitless Pittsburgh power play.
No matter. The Penguins have become chameleons under Sullivan. They can win with both firepower and precision.
Guentzel slipped one by Rinne with 3:17 to go in regulation and Bonino added an empty netter to give Pittsburgh early control of the series.
“We didn’t do a great job of (shooting), but we made them count,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “But it was a good finish there to get that one from Jake.”