Home-ice advantage in the NHL playoffs might be a myth, but don’t tell that to the Nashville Predators. During these playoffs, the Preds are 9-1 when skating on their home sheet at Bridgestone Arena, and home wins in Games 3 and 4 of the Stanley Cup Final have drawn them level with the Pittsburgh Penguins in the series, which moves back to Pittsburgh for Game 5 on Thursday.
But it might have been bad luck in the first place that the Predators had to come home and dig out of a 2-0 hole. That’s because the Preds actually played pretty well during Games 1 and 2 in Pittsburgh, dominating possession and outshooting the Pens 64-39. If not for some uncharacteristically awful play from goalie Pekka Rinne, who stopped just 78 percent of the shots he faced in Games 1 and 2 before being pulled in the third period in Game 2, the Preds might already be planning their parade route through Nashville. (It’s not all on Rinne; some questionable officiating in Game 1 didn’t help the Preds much, either.)
It was fitting, then, that Rinne’s return to form these past two games has Nashville back in the hunt for its first Stanley Cup in franchise history. Rinne was spectacular in Games 3 and 4 — he stopped 50 of the 52 shots he faced, including insane saves like this one. Rinne leads the playoffs in wins and ranks fourth in save percentage among qualified goalies. (And he’s shouldered a much larger workload than the three goalies ahead of him on that list.)
Perhaps the best proof of Rinne’s revival is his dominance on high-quality scoring opportunities. The Penguins took more than twice as many shots from the slot — the dangerous area directly in front of the net1 — in Games 3 and 4 as they did in the series’ first two games (20 vs. 7) but scored seven fewer goals. If the Predators hope to finish off their comeback, they’ll need their netminder — who remains the favorite to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as postseason MVP — to keep shaking off Games 1 and 2 and continue his excellent play.
Rinne isn’t the only reason that Nashville has been able to claw its way back into the series. Nashville’s shooters have remembered how to finish: In Games 1 and 2, the Preds scored on just 6.3 percent of the shots they took. In Games 3 and 4, that number jumped to 15.3. And the Predators’ defense has limited the effectiveness of some of Pittsburgh’s top forwards. In Games 3 and 4, Phil Kessel, Chris Kunitz and Evgeni Malkin combined for a grand total of zero points on just nine shots and combined for a -10 plus/minus. For the Pens to avoid blowing a 2-0 series lead, they’ll need their stars — in particular Malkin, who leads the league in scoring this postseason — to start playing as such.
Only five NHL teams have ever come back from a 2-0 series deficit in the finals and won; the Preds are in a position to become the sixth. To do it, they’ll need to keep dominating at home and win at least one game in Pittsburgh — much easier said than done. But based on the way Nashville has played this series, even in the losses, it has the goods to earn the state of Tennessee its long-awaited first pro championship.
CORRECTION (June 7, 4:15 p.m.): An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that only four NHL teams have come back from a 2-0 series deficit to win the Stanley Cup Final. There have been five. The Nashville Predators are trying to become the sixth.