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Mike Harrington: Penguins survive bizarre opener with Guentzel goal, assist from offside challenge

PITTSBURGH -- Exactly as we hoped.

Gary Bettman should want those words back. That's the way he described how instant replay in the NHL was working Monday night during his annual session with reporters prior to Game One of the Stanley Cup final.

Then the game started. And the NHL shot itself in the foot once again. Or perhaps we should say shot itself in the toe. Somehow, it got a dramatic game it didn't deserve.

Front was back, left was right and up was down in this one. It was one of the most bizarre games in recent playoff history. For any round, let alone the final.

The Pittsburgh Penguins survived the first shotless period in their playoff history -- and 37 minutes without a single one to their credit -- to somehow win the series opener, 5-3. Jake Guentzel's rising snap shot with 3:19 left snapped a 3-3 tie and Nick Bonino's second of the game then found the empty net with 62 seconds to go to allow the Penguins to sneak into the night with the win.

Pittsburgh had four goals on its first nine shots against veteran Pekka Rinne, who simply wasn't anywhere near good enough in his first Cup final game. The final count was 26-12 for Nashville and Rinne made only seven saves on 11 shots for a .636 save percentage that was the worst by a goalie for a full game in the playoffs since expansion began in 1967.

"It was a different game. I can't remember facing that kind of game," said Rinne, who was down far too early on Guentzel's goal. "There's a lot of positives but at the same time personally I can do a better job. It's all about the results, right? For sure it's a feeling in the locker room that even if we lost the game we can feel confident with the way we played. It's an encouraging sign I guess."

The bizarre finish came in a game where the huge talking point was in the opening 20 minutes. That's because an offside challenge wiped out the first goal of the series, by Nashville's P.K. Subban, and helped spin the game in the other direction.

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It was a classic Subban goal, a laser wrist shot that cleanly beat Pittsburgh's Matt Murray at 7:13 of the first, complete with down-on-one-knee celebration and glove point back to Rinne at the other end. Subban has become a face of the game, a perfect showman for Nashville after his trade from Montreal. He was a star on Media Day here Sunday and was profiled on ESPN's E:60 earlier in the day. Hockey players simply don't make that show.

So while the PPG Paints Arena crowd was quieted by the goal, there was a sudden announcement of an offside challenge. You hardly even remembered how the puck entered the zone, as inconsequential as it was.

Then your mind wandered to a scant three hours earlier as Bettman gave an 18-minute soliloquy on the state of the game. It included plenty of solid information, like updates on the expansion draft and next year's marquee events. It included fluff about the league's young stars, TV ratings, traffic on social media. It was standard-issue stuff.

Bettman always gets asked about replay challenges during these sessions and he usually gets aggravated by the inquiries. He was clearly not enthused at last year's All-Star Game in Nashville when I referred to offside reviews as "toenail challenges." So when he brought up the subject unprompted on Monday, it was clear that it was a preemptive strike.

"They are working exactly as they were intended to: that is to provide officials with an opportunity to get a better look at plays," Bettman said. "We hear the commentary, ‘Well, it was just offsides by a little bit. His skate was in the air.’ The fact of the matter is, it’s our job to make sure the rules are complied with, and the video replay through the coach’s challenge on offsides has worked exactly as we hoped it would. The rule is the rule. We enforce it."

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Nashville's Filip Forsberg was ruled offside and it was oh-so-close. Yep. By a toenail. Forsberg's skate was in the air and not touching the ice -- a flaw in the rule NHL general managers have chosen not to fix -- and after a few minutes the goal never happened.

It was the height of lunacy in the two years of this rule. It was utter garbage. It was classic NHL.

Seven minutes into the first game of the final, they're almost telling you to watch Cavs-Warriors and not bother with their little series.

The Predators had the game's first five shots on goal and the better of the play. And to their credit, they were diplomatic about the sudden turn of events.

“It doesn’t change our mindset, but it’s unfortunate — we thought it was a goal," said captain Mike Fisher. "What do you do? From there, we played solid. We just didn’t find that way to win.”

But as you can imagine, they lost some starch with the lost goal. The Penguins woke up. Then the stripes got involved again.

Calle Jarnkrok was called for interference and, during the delayed penalty, James Neal foolishly cross-checked Trevor Daley and got nailed for another minor. So Pittsburgh was handed a 5-on-3 for a full two minutes on a call you see like once a season. But we saw it 13:50 into the first game of the final.

(Aside here: Officials probably should call the double penalty far more than they do but it's just not done. So now we're going to do it in the final?)

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Predictably, the Penguins scored on the power play with Evgeni Malkin's shot leaking through Rinne's glove at 15:32. Just 65 seconds later, Conor Sheary took a sick no-look pass from Chris Kunitz and slammed home a one-timer to make it 2-0. The crowd was wild and the Predators were reeling.

The Nashville disaster reached its climax with 16.1 seconds left as  Bonino's one-hand flip shot was kicked by Rinne right off defenseman Mattias Ekholm and into the net for an own-goal that made it 3-0 and that was that.

Or so we thought, until Ryan Ellis one-timed home a Subban feed at 8:21 of the second and Colton Sissons used his knee to deflect home a Roman Josi shot at 10:06 of the third. And then, incredibly,  Frederick Gaudreau scored his first NHL goal with 6:31 left, five seconds after Subban left the penalty box on a delay-of-game call.

This was a classic food-for-thought game. The Penguins have to be wondering how they're going to attack the Nashville defense. Pittsburgh didn't get a shot on goal in the second period -- the first time that's happened in the Cup final since the league began tracking shots on goal for the 1957-58 season -- and was blanked again in the third until the Guentzel goal.

"We weren't very good," said Pens coach Mike Sullivan, who repeated that three times, almost making you forget his team won. "When you're playing a team like Nashville that has a balanced attack you've got to have some pushback. And I didn't think in the second period we had any pushback."

At times, Pittsburgh seemed very hesitant with the puck in the Nashville zone. Like the Pens were saying since they beat Ottawa in the East final, Nashville has four Erik Karlssons on their blue line. The Pens won this one but this looks like a long series.

"That's hockey. That's just what it is," said Subban. "And if we just play the way we did, minus some of the mistakes that we made, I like our chances. We'll be better next game, that's for sure. I'm sure they're going to be better. This is going to be a long series."

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