There’s been a lot of talk about who the “better team” is in this Stanley Cup Final. It’s almost like one team isn’t up 2-0 and hasn’t outscored the other team nine goals to four.
While the Penguins haven’t owned the shot attempts edge in the series so far, they’ve certainly owned the scoring edge. They’ve capitalized when they’ve needed to and they’e stonewalled the Preds when they were at their strongest. They haven’t fumbled their way to a dominant series lead, they’ve taken it with purpose.
You can certainly point to the Mattias Ekholm own goal in Game 1 and probably also Vernon Fiddler’s own goal in Game 2 as examples of luck going the Penguins way, but that doesn’t mean the Penguins have lucked their way to a 2-0 lead.
To say that would be to discredit the most important player in this series so far, Matt Murray.
Through two games, this series has been about goaltending (and officiating—but I’m not going there) with one team flourishing and the other team floundering. Murray has stopped 60 of 64 shots for a .938 save percentage, while Pekka Rinne has only stopped 28 of 36 shots for a—wait for it—.778 save percentage.
That’s a 160 point difference in save percentage. Ouch.
Murray was especially crucial in Game 2, where he stopped 37 of 38 shots, including some incredibly close, incredibly dangerous shots by the Predators:
Quality scoring opportunities for guys like Forsberg, Smith, Josi, Neal, and Arvidsson, all gobbled up by Murray. The Preds were unable to get many high danger shots on his blocker side, but they were able to get him moving laterally. It didn’t matter. Murray was on his game all night.
And the one goal the Preds did score was an unbelievable individual effort by Pontus Aberg. He destroyed Olli Maatta on the rush, deked the best deke that’s ever been deked, and roofed the puck better than most can. It was the exception, not the rule.
At the other end of the ice, Rinne was doing this:
Take just a moment and glance at those two charts back-to-back, noticing how many fewer attempts there were by the Penguins than the Predators. Though they did struggle with the Pens’ transition game, the Preds’ defense did its job at preventing shot attempts for the most part. The goaltender wasn’t able to hold up his end of the bargain.
The first goal by Jake Guentzel was especially frustrating. Rinne didn’t seal off the post, wasn’t able to gather the initial rebound, and didn’t stand strong enough in his position to defend the play as Guentzel was pummeling away at the puck.
The second Guentzel goal was some atrocious rebound control. Seriously, it looked like Rinne was starting a breakout with that pad save. It came right to Guentzel, who had three feet of net to shoot at.
The Evgeni Malkin goal, a good example of the Preds defense not dealing with the Pens counter and transition game well, featured an elite goal scorer overpowering a shaken goaltender. He beat Rinne on his glove side, which is normally his strength. At that point, Rinne had allowed three goals and was desperate to find a part of his game that made any sense. He couldn’t do it.
Meanwhile, Murray was shutting down the Preds at every turn. Though the Preds were dominating the shot counter and the Corsi meter, they simply could not solve Murray.
After the game, Peter Laviolette was quick to defend his goaltender, pointing out that the whole team needed to be better.
“Pekka has been terrific through this entire playoffs... I think there's things we can do better. All three goals in the third period, we could have done something better. We're leaving them odd man numbered rushes. I believe all of them were odd, three-on-twos and two-on-ones makes it more difficult.”
He’s right: Rinne has been terrific in these playoffs. In fact, he’s had some pretty incredible saves in these playoffs despite dealing with some odd-man rushes and stopping some wide open chances.
There was this point blank save on Rickard Rakell in OT of Game 4 against the Ducks. Which came two days after he stopped Rakell on this odd-man rush in Game 3.
Back against St. Louis in Game 5, he stopped Ryan Reaves on a wide open odd-man rush chance to keep the game close. In Game 3, he had this stop on David Perron, also an odd-man rush.
Even further, Rinne had no problem on this breakaway chance from Nick Schmaltz in Game 3 against the Blackhawks. And he stopped this wide open wrist shot from Marian Hossa in Game 2, on his way to his second shutout in Chicago.
And there were scores of huge momentum saving saves in between, where Rinne was confident and calm in net. Recovering nicely when out of position, controlling rebounds, playing the puck behind the net well, snapping the glove, smothering loose pucks... all those things.
So that “something better” than Lavy was referring to on Wednesday has to be Rinne, right? The defense has been successful at suppressing shots for most of these playoffs and looked very much in control in Pittsburgh. The difference in the last two games has been Rinne.
The “X-factor” in any series is the goaltender. The result of a game can so often hinge on the play of the goalie—so much so that good performances look like great performances, and bad performances can look like awful performances.
As they say, “you aren’t in trouble until you lose at home” so let’s hope the Preds don’t run into any trouble this weekend.