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Penguins return home in bid to regain control of Cup | TribLIVE.com
Penguins/NHL

Penguins return home in bid to regain control of Cup

Jonathan Bombulie
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Christian Tyler Randolph | Tribune-Review
Penguins center Jake Guentzel (59) controls the puck against Predators defenseman Ryan Ellis (4) in the first period of Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final on Saturday, June 3, 2017, at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn.
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Christian Tyler Randolph | Tribune-Review
Predators goalie Pekka Rinne (35) stops a shot on goal against the Penguins in the first period of Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday, June 5, 2017, at Bridgestone Arena.

With the Stanley Cup Final reduced to a best-of-three series that starts with Game 5 on Thursday night at PPG Paints Arena, the answer to one fundamental question could decide where the most famous trophy in sports spends the summer.

Have the Nashville Predators taken control of the series, or is this going to be the kind of matchup where the home team dominates?

There is plenty of evidence pointing in both directions.

For those who believe Nashville has taken over, one stat tells the story best: 123-91.

That’s the margin by which the Predators have outshot the Penguins in the series.

In the first two games, the Penguins finished scoring chances with lethal precision, and Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne looked ordinary at best. That led to a pair of Penguins wins.

In the next two games, the Penguins regressed closer to normal ranges with their shooting percentage, and Rinne got his act back together. That led to a pair of Predators victories.

Taking out the vagaries of puck luck and hot goalies, the Predators have been the superior team when it comes to generating offense and suppressing chances against. That guarantees them nothing moving forward, of course, but it indicates the Penguins need to improve their play to win two more games and repeat as Stanley Cup champions.

“Our first couple, we were fortunate to get the win, the way they played,” Chris Kunitz said. “We felt like we had better Games 3 and 4, but their goaltender played really great. We have to go out there and achieve that success where we feel like we’re a better team, but we also have the results on the board. That’s where you’re going to be a team dominating that momentum.”

For those who believe in the power of home-ice advantage, there are several pieces of evidence to point to.

For one, the matchup game changes now that the series has shifted back to PPG Paints Arena.

At Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were looking across the ice at star defensemen Roman Josi and P.K. Subban pretty much every shift. When coach Mike Sullivan has the last personnel change at home, he can spot his most dangerous offensive players against Nashville’s third defense pair much more easily.

That’s an advantage for the Penguins, though it hardly seems important enough to completely tip the balance of the series.

“We’re playing the same players pretty much,” said winger Jake Guentzel, a frequent linemate of Crosby. “They have really good defensemen. Whoever you’re going out there against is going to be a really good player. You just have to try to get behind them.”

A more tangible benefit of being at home might come from the men in stripes.

Statistics indicate home teams get more calls in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Against the Predators, the Penguins got 10 power plays in their two home games and six in their two road games. Over the course of the entire postseason, the Penguins averaged 3.5 power plays at home and 2.7 on the road.

“We obviously like this place,” Kunitz said. “We like the way our fans rally around us, the way we’ve had success here. The ice conditions will be a little better here. We can snap that power play around and really get that momentum change for us.”

While it’s interesting to debate whether the Predators or the home team has the advantage heading into Game 5, it’s not a question the Penguins spent much time pondering Wednesday.

They know they have to make improvements in their game to stop Nashville’s momentum in the series, but in general, they were happy with how they played in a 4-1 loss in Game 4 on Monday. Sullivan said it was the first game in the series where the Penguins had more scoring chances than the Predators, according to the team’s internal statistics.

“I don’t know that we feel that we’re against the ropes. I think we have to win a game. That hasn’t changed,” Sullivan said. ” ‘Desperate’ is a funny word for me because it gets thrown around our game a lot. It always has a connotation of hopelessness. I don’t believe that’s the word that we want to use to describe our team.

“I think we’ve got to play with urgency. I think we’ve got to play determined. I think we have to play with conviction. I think when our team plays that way, we’re at our very best.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter at @BombulieTrib.

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