Sports Hockey

STANLEY CUP

Predators even series with Penguins as Rinne shines again

By Michael Traikos, Postmedia Network

NASHVILLE — It was prior to Game 4 when word filtered down that the National Hockey League would not be accepting Conn Smythe Trophy ballots with two names on them.

You know, just in case anyone was thinking about splitting their vote and putting Pittsburgh’s Matt Murray AND Marc-Andre Fleury, who have shared the net this season, on the same ballot. Of course, based on the Nashville Predators’ 4-1 win against the Penguins on Monday, there was only one goalie now worthy of the award.

And his name isn’t Murray.

Pekka Rinne, who had been the reason why Nashville had lost the first two games of the Stanley Cup final, has been the reason why the Predators, who outscored the Penguins 9-2 at home after getting outscored 9-4 on the road, are now heading back to Pittsburgh with the best-of-seven series tied 2-2.

Game 5 is on Thursday.

“Pek’s was amazing again tonight,” said defenceman Ryan Ellis. “When they had their chances, when our system broke down, Peks was there for us. He’s been there all playoffs, all year.”

Two nights after he stopped 27 of 28 shots in a 5-1 win in Game 3, the Predators goalie was even better in a 23-save performance in Game 4. This was the Rinne we had seen for most of the playoffs, the one who entered the final with a sparkling .941 save percentage and was the reason why Nashville had swept the Blackhawks and rolled past the Blues and Ducks.

If only he had he played this way at the beginning of the series, Nashville might have been celebrating with the Cup already. Still, it’s better late than never. And if Rinne can keep this up — and the Predators can continue to get depth scoring from the unlikeliest sources — the Penguins won’t have a chance.

“I don’t want to look back now, because we have more games to play, but it’s a roller coaster,” Rinne said of the final. “The first two games, I wasn’t happy with my game. But obviously, these two games have been huge for us.”

Frederick Gaudreau scored his third goal of the final, while Calle Jarnkrok, Viktor Arvidsson and Filip Forsberg scored their first goal in what seemed like forever. But it was Rinne who was the difference maker throughout a game that could have gone either way if not for a big save at the right time.

He was the spark for at least two of the Predators’ goals. Both could have been classified as turning points.

“The games are a lot closer than the score indicates,” said Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan. “That was the case in our building and it was the case in their building. We have to go back and respond the right way.”

With the score tied 1-1 in the second period, it was Rinne who stopped Chris Kunitz on a breakaway. Moments later, the puck went the other way and Gaudreau scored on a wraparound to make it 2-1.

“I don’t know how I was able to make the save,” said Rinne. “But at the moment that was a big play.”

Shortly after, Rinne not only stopped Sidney Crosby on a breakaway, but also recovered and dove across the crease to rob Jake Guentzel on a sure-fire goal. Again, the Predators went the other way and made it 3-1 with Arvidsson beating Murray on a breakaway.

“It was much like the first two games in their rink. We capitalized on errors and Pek’s was there for us when they had their chances,” said Ellis. “Pek’s did a phenomenal job on the first save, the second, the third, the fourth. I mean, I don’t know how many there were, but Pek’s was amazing.”

With the Predators leading 1-0 on a goal from Jarnkrok, Crosby somehow caught Nashville’s defence napping and scored on a breakaway pass from Brian Dumoulin.

The Penguins could have had more. Crosby was that dangerous. Two nights earlier, he and Evgeni Malkin had failed to get a shot on net and the way that Crosby responded in Game 4 made it seem as though he took the outlier of a stat personally.

Crosby, who scored Pittsburgh’s only goal, finished the game with four shots. Malkin had a more difficult night. He got split up from playing with Phil Kessel and managed just two shots, including a wraparound attempt that Rinne slid somehow slid across and stopped. Worse, he was partly responsible for Nashville’s third goal, when he was stripped of the puck in the neutral zone that caused a breakaway in the other direction.

The big problem, however, wasn’t Nashville’s defence.

It was the goalie who’s back to being the team’s playoff MVP.

ARVIDSSON ENDS SKID

Viktor Arvidsson smiled and he laughed.

“It’s about time,” he said.

The Nashville Predators forward led the team with 31 goals in the regular season, but for whatever reason his stick had gone cold in the playoffs. That changed in Game 4, when Arvidsson snapped a 15-game goalless drought in a 4-1 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

“I had some looks and I felt I just tried to shoot as hard as I could and it went it,” Arvidsson, who last scored in Game 4 of the first round, said of his breakaway goal in the second period. “It felt good. I feel like I’m all over the puck and making plays and forechecking hard … I just hadn’t been able to put the puck in the net.”

Predators captain Mike Fisher started the play when he stripped Evgeni Malkin of the puck in the neutral zone. But it was Arvidsson who used his speed to motor up the ice and create the breakaway.

“Mike’s got skill, but the second part is he’s got will,” said head coach Peter Laviolette. “He’s the heartbeat of the team.”