NASHVILLE – The Pittsburgh Penguins team bus pulled up their hotel in downtown Nashville in the middle of a hot afternoon, drums and guitars echoing in the distance from a country music fan festival.
Mario Lemieux stepped out of it, wheeling a suitcase through the doors into the hotel lobby. Coach Mike Sullivan followed, and the players soon after. As each one filtered in, past television cameras, one thought occurs to any observer of the National Hockey League:
There are a whole lotta championship rings in this organization, and a whole lotta players that have experienced what might occur after Game 6 on Sunday: The hoisting of the Stanley Cup.
“I mean, it’s obviously one of those things that you don’t want to get too far ahead of yourself,” said winger Chris Kunitz, seeking his fourth Stanley Cup ring. “You know you have to go out there and still perform tomorrow to be able to achieve your ultimate goal, to go out there and have our best game of the season and beat their best that they’re going to throw at us, and if we don’t do that, we’re not going to be able to accomplish anything.”
The bottom line for the Penguins as they head back into this madhouse in Nashville to face the Predators – 9-1 on home ice in the playoffs, having outscored Pittsburgh 9-2 there in Games 3 and 4 – is that they’re trending up while the Predators are trending down. All those rings on all those guys matter: Champions are champions because they know how to close the deal.
“I believe that with each game that we’ve played here, we’ve gotten better,” said coach Mike Sullivan.
Game 4 was a strong win for Nashville, but not a flawless one: The Penguins found ways to get behind their defense, found ways to be dangerous against Pekka Rinne. They possessed the puck more than in Game 3. In Game 5, those seeds planted in the previous game bloomed, and the Penguins dominated in a 6-0 win.
What changed to allow the Penguins to figure out a defense that was rock solid, outside of a few moments, in Games 1-3?
“Certainly it’s not like we’ve devised a new game plan,” said Sullivan. “I just think we’re playing better. We’re playing harder. We’re playing smarter. I think we’re executing. We’ve got good players. So when these guys play a committed, inspired game the way they do and they execute, then their talent and their instincts are going to take over; and when they do that, they’re hard to defend. They’re going to get quality chances because of the talent that these guys have.”
So the question becomes: Can the Predators reverse this trend?
“Last game, no one played good enough. I think we’ve all got to be better,” said Filip Forsberg of the Predators. “They stepped it up one notch last game and obviously we want to do that, we have to do that, to be able to win.”
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