Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 1, 2017

A Season Comes Down To One Decision

What will Peter Laviolette do? The veteran head coach has steered the Nashville Predators on an unlikely seven-week run through the playoffs, all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. Unlike the franchise that currently employs him and many of the players he now coaches, Laviolette has been here before. He coached the Carolina Hurricanes to the Cup in 2006, and guided the Philadelphia Flyers to the Finals in 2010. At age 52 he is just the fourth coach in NHL history to lead three different franchises to the ultimate round of the playoffs. Now he faces the hardest decision of his coaching career.

When this year’s playoffs began few fans outside of Tennessee believed that Laviolette’s team would still be skating on the first of June. The Predators had the worst record of all sixteen teams in the NHL’s postseason tournament. As the eighth seed in the Western Conference Nashville had to face the top-seeded Chicago Blackhawks in the opening round. Chicago had won the Cup three of the past six years and had beaten Nashville four of the five times the two teams faced each other during the regular season. But the Predators didn’t just win the series, they swept Chicago out of the playoffs in four straight games. The strength of Nashville is its defense, and the Predators demonstrated that by shutting out Chicago twice and allowing a total of just three goals in the four games.

Their confidence climbing with each successive win, the Predators went on to defeat the St. Louis Blues in the second round and the Anaheim Ducks in the Conference Final, both in six games. Nashville reached the Finals without ever trailing in games in any of the three previous series, and without ever losing back-to-back games.

Now both of those streaks have ended, despite Nashville largely controlling the play for both of the first two games against the Pittsburgh Penguins. In Game One the Predators did not allow a single shot on goal during the entire second period. In all the Penguins went thirty-seven minutes between shots; but the attempts that bookended that lengthy drought, one by Nick Bonino and the other by Jake Guentzel both found the back of the net, as did three other offerings off Pittsburgh sticks. That was good enough for a 5-3 Game One victory for the defending champion Penguins.

Again in Game Two Nashville carried the action, outshooting Pittsburgh 32-19 through the first two periods. But a barrage of three goals in the space of just 3:18 early in the third period, the last two coming only fifteen seconds apart, turned a 1-1 tie into a 4-1 Pittsburgh win.

There is broad agreement among analysts that Nashville owes its spot in the finals to the play of goaltender Pekka Rinne. The 34-year old native of Finland was brilliant through the first three rounds of the playoffs. There were the two shutouts against the powerhouse Blackhawks, and similarly solid play against the Blues and Ducks. Going into the Finals Rinne led starting playoff goalies in wins, save percentage and goals against average. Even before the first faceoff against the Penguins Rinne was being touted as a likely recipient of the Conn Smythe Trophy, awarded to the MVP of the playoffs.

There is equally broad agreement among those same analysts that Nashville now finds itself in a two games to none hole because of the play of goaltender Pekka Rinne. As good as he was against the three earlier opponents, Rinne has been the complete opposite against Pittsburgh. While the Penguins final score of Game One was an empty netter, Rinne allowed four goals on just twelve Pittsburgh shots. Despite the Nashville defense not allowing a single attempt on net for a stretch that ran more than half of the game, the Predators lost the opening contest. In Game Two he allowed a soft, game-tying goal by Jake Guentzel off a rebound that he should have controlled in the first period. Then in the third period Rinne gifted Guentzel the eventual game winner by kicking a rebound right to him as the Penguins began their scoring frenzy. While the second score of the three quick goals glanced off a defender, the third was a medium range shot by Evgeni Malkin that whipped past Rinne’s left shoulder before the netminder moved. At that point Laviolette benched Rinne in favor of Juuse Saros, but the damage was done.

Now the Predators face a critical Game Three on Saturday. Laviolette knows that his strategic approach has been sound, with his team controlling five-on-five play. The Predators will also have the vocal backing of their home fans at Bridgestone Arena for the first time in the Finals. But the head coach must decide who to start in goal. Does he stick with Rinne and hope that his starter rediscovers the wizardry he displayed through the first three rounds? Or does he take note of the fact that Rinne’s save percentage has steadily declined through the postseason, from .976 against Chicago, to .932 against St. Louis, to .925 against Anaheim, and finally to an unsightly .778 in the first two games of the Finals? Laviolette must also consider experience. Rinne has played in 66 playoff games over six different seasons. Saros is a 22-year old rookie whose first ice time in the postseason was when he replaced Rinne in the third period of Game Two.

For now, Laviolette isn’t saying who will be between the pipes when the puck drops on Saturday evening. The one certainty is that he knows the import of his decision. In 2006, he watched as rookie Cam Ward carried the Hurricanes to the Cup, winning a well-deserved Smythe Award. Four years later he twice had to pull a shaky starter Michael Leighton in favor of backup Brian Boucher, as Laviolette’s Flyers fell to Chicago in six games. Peter Laviolette knows all too well that when the NHL calendar turns to June a season can turn on the performance of a goaltender. The decision he’s about to make may well determine whether this year’s Stanley Cup Finals turn out to be rousing, or a rout.

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