NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- There's rarely any rivalry when you get to the Stanley Cup final. The teams have only met twice during the season and often have never staged a playoff series before they're paired in the NHL's ultimate showdown. By contrast, the mutual disdain of, say, a Capitals-Penguins or Predators-Blackhawks series is palpable and immediate.
It takes a while to get a good hate on. Well, we've reached that point in this Nashville-Pittsburgh matchup. This is turning into the nastiest final since the Boston-Vancouver seven-gamer in 2011 became a vindictive grudge match.
The Penguins lead the series, three games to two, and can wrap up their second straight Cup with a win here Sunday night in Bridgestone Arena. The fans here are crazy enough as it is, but they should be whipped into quite the state even more than normal in the wake of all the extracurriculars that took place in Game Five.
Sidney Crosby is undoubtedly going to be at the top of their ire list after his run-in with P.K. Subban late in the first period of Thursday night's 6-0 Penguins victory. Crosby accused Subban of trying to put a "UFC move" on his leg, to which No. 87 responded by driving Subban's head into the ice about 10 times. It wasn't a good look. Preds coach Peter Laviolette was wild on the bench in the aftermath of the play, which led to coincidental minor penalties, and had hardly cooled down after the game.
Subban tried to be diplomatic.
"I’m not an official. I’m not going to judge what’s over the line and what’s not," Subban said after the game. "But at the end of the day, I’ve just got to play the game and play the game hard. ... It’s up to the official to call it. If they don’t, then you just got to move forward. It’s hockey, man. Just hockey.”
The Crosby-Subban battle, which started with silliness of the "Listerine wars" following Game Three, took on a whole new level with the confrontation on the ice Thursday.
"Guys are trying to play and trying to protect themselves at all times, and be just as rough as they are back," said Pittsburgh winger Chris Kunitz. "You don’t want to give an upper hand to anybody, and I think it’s just the competitive nature of the playoffs."
"P.K. has played against some pretty tough players in the playoffs here to get to this point," Laviolette said here Friday. "Whether it's Evgeni Malkin's line or Crosby's line, he's still faced with big challenges. I think he's done a really good job. He's a competitive guy. Last night their team won a hockey game. They won the battles. They won the speed. And we've got to look to be better."
This is the only series in the entire playoffs yet to have a one-goal game. The only close verdict was the Penguins' 5-3 victory in Game One, when Jake Guentzel scored the tiebreaking goal with 3:17 left and Nick Bonino then hit an empty net. The home team has won all five games -- and the goal differential is an astounding 24-6.
"I'm not sure what the explanation is," Pens coach Mike Sullivan said on a conference call Friday. "I think sometimes just every game tends to take on its own identity, and I think we're just trying to prepare for that one game ahead of us, and we're hopeful that we'll put our best game on the ice."
The lack of a close game can lead to the message-sending that ramps up the rancor. That was certainly the case in the third period Thursday, when the teams combined for 90 penalty minutes. Pittsburgh's Carl Hagelin and Nashville's Victor Arvidsson threw down in a rare exhibition of Swede on Swede crime while Malkin locked up with Roman Josi.
Scrums routinely developed as the clock wound down and a big outburst took place with 34 seconds left. That resulted in a fight between Preds defenseman Yannick Weber and Kunitz, and a cross check to the face issued by Nashville's Colton Sissons against Pittsburgh blueliner Oli Maatta.
Sissons' match penalty and automatic one-game suspension was rescinded Friday by the NHL's Department of Player Safety, so he'll play in Game Six. Sullivan said Maatta was fine as well.
Neither team was on the ice Friday and both will work out Saturday in advance of Game Six. Laviolette, as is his custom, didn't give any inkling on the status of Ryan Ellis after the defenseman missed the final 36 minutes of Thursday's game following a collision with Patric Hornqvist in front of the Nashville net.
That could be a potentially huge loss. Ellis averaged more than 24 minutes over the first four games, and his departure meant the Preds' third pair of Weber and Matt Irwin was much more exposed in Game Five than it had been previously in the series. Irwin was on the ice for three goals against in the game, Weber for two. Both got by far their biggest workload of the playoffs with Irwin at 19:46 and Weber at 15:24.
struggled to finish shift pic.twitter.com/UmaOSMjBBy
— steph (@myregularface) June 9, 2017
One oddity to this year's playoffs in Nashville's favor is that teams who get buried in one game immediately bounce back to win the next. When the margin has been six goals or more, the team on the losing end is 3-0 its next time out.
Edmonton responded to its 7-0 loss at San Jose in the first round with a 4-3 win in Game Five. Anaheim got drubbed by the Oilers, 7-1, in Game Six of the second round but held on to win Game Seven, 2-1, and Ottawa endured a 7-0 beating at the hands of the Penguins in the East final before rallying for a 2-1 win in Game Six.
Laviolette brought his team to the rink for meetings and video Friday to wash away the stench of Game Five and get fully focused on Sunday night.
"We've got a lot of confidence in our group to be better, to get better, and to play a good game," he said. "I don't think that there's any searching going on in there on how we're going to do this or what needs to take place. We need to play a better game. We've proven that we can and we have in the past, and there's a lot of confidence that we will."
"Teams that advance this far in the playoffs are good teams, and they have a lot of pride," Sullivan said. "So those elimination games are always the most difficult."