PITTSBURGH — They could chuckle about it afterward because, however ugly, the Pittsburgh Penguins managed to come away with a win.
The defending champs stole Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final Monday night after Jake Guentzel broke a 3-3 tie with just over three minutes left in regulation. The Penguins had a 3-0 first period completely unravel and failed to generate a single shot for 37 minutes, including zero in the second period.
"It's not textbook," Sidney Crosby said after a two-assist performance in the 5-3 win. "It didn't feel like it was that long, but stats don't lie."
No team had ever gone shot-less in one period of a Stanley Cup final game since the NHL began tracking shots on goal in 1957.
The Penguins, who scored more goals and fired more shots than any other team during the regular season, managed only 11 shots at Pekka Rinne, beating him four times. Rinne was tasked with a single shot over the final 40 minutes and it was Guentzel's game-winning goal and 10th of the playoffs.
"We weren't very good," Pittsburgh's head coach Mike Sullivan said.
Players were aware of the drought as it lingered on the bench — with the shot-clock stuck at eight — but had no idea it lasted as long as it did. Their struggles were especially pronounced in the second when the Preds hogged the puck almost without exception and spent shift after shift in the Pittsburgh zone.
The Pens rarely came close in those 20 minutes to even landing a shot at Rinne and Nashville eventually marched all the way back with two power-play goals and a third game-tying marker from undrafted centre Frederick Gaudreau.
This kind of stifling play isn't entirely unfamiliar from the Predators, who notably swept the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round while allowing a mere three goals.
"It didn't feel like that at certain points," Crosby said of the dry spell. "It felt like we were getting some decent looks and maybe we missed the net or we didn't quite execute on a play."
Pittsburgh successfully challenged P.K. Subban's apparent game-opening goal — it was offside — and then built their lead by striking for three in quick succession, starting with a power-play goal from Evgeni Malkin with two Preds in the box. Conor Sheary increased the lead to two 65 seconds later, helped by the second of two assists from Crosby.
Nick Bonino added the third on Rinne when he shovelled an innocent shot on goal with 17 seconds left. The 34-year-old made a stick save, but it caromed right off Mattias Ekholm in front and into the back of the net.
That was it for shots on Rinne though until Guentzel's go-ahead goal and eventual game-winner.
Pittsburgh defenceman Ron Hainsey noted that the Penguins actually didn't give up all that much and indeed, even-strength shot attempts were just 36-26 favouring Nashville with two of the three Predator goals coming by way of the power play. What ailed them, instead, was how little they managed to generate offensively — save for the back-half of the opening period when they jumped in front.
"This team usually, for the most part, is pretty good at making sure that we're continuing to play the game the right way," Sullivan said.
The Penguins have in their home dressing room a whiteboard with a header that says "Right way" and under it are subheaders for intangibles and play with and without the puck.
Many elements, such as puck protection, were missing in defeat.
Crosby thought it came down to winning more battles for the puck and Sullivan agreed that his team needed to stiffen up in the "battle areas."
"With or without the puck, it's a team that's quick and we've got to be faster," Crosby said.
For the Predators, meanwhile, a dominant effort ended in defeat.
Three Preds lingered in the underbelly of PPG Paints Arena afterward. Filip Forsberg sat on an exercise bike as a pair of teammates leaned against the wall with sullen looks on their faces. If falling in the opener, Nashville at least demonstrated — for the better part of three periods — that it might be capable of slowing the Penguins high-powered attack.
"They won the game," said Preds coach Peter Laviolette after being informed that players from the opposition believed they had stolen Game 1. "You know, I'd rather be up 1-0 and having my guys say we stole (it). It not about that ... Just cuts down our opportunities to win four games."