By TERESA M. WALKER, AP Sports Writer
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Predators coach Peter Laviolette heard all the questions and criticism of Pekka Rinne after the goaltender’s struggles in the Stanley Cup Final in Pittsburgh.
Well, Laviolette never thought of switching goalies.
A change of scenery helped Rinne and all his Nashville teammates as they dominated once again on their own ice for the biggest piece of franchise history yet.
A victory in the Stanley Cup Final.
Roman Josi and Frederick Gaudreau scored 42 seconds apart in the second period, and the Predators beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 5-1 Saturday night to pull within 2-1 in the best-of-seven series. Rinne started and made 27 saves against a Pittsburgh team that continued to struggle on the power play and lacked the same zip they had in winning the first two games at home.
“There was no decision,” Laviolette said of changing goalies. “He was terrific. I said that after Game 2. He’s been the backbone for our team. He’s been excellent. His game tonight was rock solid.”
The Predators capped the biggest party in Nashville history with a victory that gave thousands of fans inside and outside of the arena reason to celebrate. Country star Keith Urban and wife, actress Nicole Kidman, were high-fiving inside the arena and they had plenty of company. Credit Rinne for coming through with a stingy performance and helping the Predators improve to 8-1 at home this postseason.
The 6-foot-5 Finn looked so shaky in the first two games, giving up eight goals on just 36 shots. Laviolette benched him in the third period of Game 2 when Rinne gave up three goals in the first 3:28 of a 4-1 loss.
Rinne said he changed nothing and knew he was playing all the time. Nashville fans did their best to lift his spirits by chanting his name in pre-game warm-ups.
“Collectively we came into the locker room, and we were telling each other we’ve never seen anything like that,” Rinne said.
Josi also had two assists. James Neal, Craig Smith and Mattias Ekholm also scored for Nashville as the Predators worked out some frustration against the Pens.
“Like our team has done the whole playoffs against Chicago, St. Louis, Anaheim, we showed really good composure,” said Nashville defenseman P.K. Subban, who had predicted a win in Game 3. “We’re going to take that into the next game.”
Game 4 is Monday night.
Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said he thought his Penguins gave up a couple of easy goals.
“We’re disappointed we didn’t get the result, but we also understand that this is a series,” Sullivan said. “Our guys, they’ve been through this. They can draw on their experience.
We’re not going to let this certainly get us down. We’re going to learn from it, move by it and get ready for the next game.”
Captain Sidney Crosby did not have a shot on goal, and neither did Evgeni Malkin.
“Hopefully a game like this is something that’s a hard lesson,” Crosby said. “But we’ve got to make sure we’re better.”
Jake Guentzel scored his 13th goal this postseason and fourth of this series for Pittsburgh and now is one off Dino Ciccarelli’s rookie record of 14 in 1981 for Minnesota. Guentzel, already with two game-winning goals in the series, put the Penguins up 1-0 on their second shot with a wrister off a rebound of Ian Cole that beat Rinne just 2:46 into the game.
Rinne stopped the next 26 shots for the victory and the party continued into the night.
Early on, Matt Murray extended his scoreless streak to 72:54 with the Pittsburgh goalie looking ready to notch his 21st playoff win. Then he gave up five goals in the span of 15 shots and the catfish watch was on.
The Predators got it started with a three-goal flurry in the second.
Josi scored his sixth goal off a slap shot at 5:51, tying it at 1-1 and finally giving nervous fans something to enjoy. Then Gaudreau, who scored his first career NHL goal in Game 1, scored 42 seconds later to put Nashville ahead with his wrister from the high slot, taking advantage of a screen by Penguins defenseman Ian Cole to beat Murray glove-side.
Just after that go-ahead goal, the Penguins had a rush on Rinne, and the three-time Vezina Trophy finalist made back-to-back big saves. First, he stopped Phil Kessel’s wrister from the right circle. The rebound bounced back into the slot, and Rinne made a save on Chris Kunitz with an assist from Subban sliding over to help.
Neal made it 3-1 with 22.6 seconds left in the second, banking the puck off Murray’s left arm for his first goal in the series and sixth of the playoffs. Smith’s goal on a breakaway at 4:54 was his first of the playoffs, and Ekholm padded the lead with a power-play goal with 6:50 left.
“We played some good hockey in those first two games, just a couple little breakdowns and they jumped all over us and it was in the back of the net,” Neal said. “It was a good job of limiting that tonight.”
As for Rinne, Neal added: “We felt we left him out to dry a few times in the last game. I thought we did a better job tonight.”
Notes: Smith is the 18th different Nashville player to score a goal this postseason, and Ekholm became the 19th. … The Penguins went 0 of 3 on the power play and now are 1 of 13 in this series. … With an assist, Crosby now has 160 career playoff points (56 goals, 104 assists) and tied Mike Bossy, Gordie Howe, Bobby Smith and Al MacInnis for 20th all-time. … Laviolette sat veterans Cody McLeod and Vern Fiddler to get more speed with Harry Zolnierczyk and P.A. Parenteau. … Pittsburgh forward Carl Hagelin played for the first time with center Nick Bonino out after taking a Subban slap shot off his left foot in Game 2 that left him on crutches and in a walking boot.
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