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Pittsburgh plays a complete style of hockey that stats can't capture

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In the court of Lord Stanley, those who play complete serve as judge, jury and executioner.

Despite its firm grasp on faceoffs, shots on goal and hits, Nashville is just two losses away from the guillotine.  If you’re the Predators' camp, you shouldn’t be questioning how it’s possible that Pittsburgh is holding a chokehold in this series with a two-game lead.

No meticulous algorithms needed here.  It’s basic math.

Pittsburgh outhustles. 

Pittsburgh wins the puck battles.

Pittsburgh takes advantage of its opportunities.

“So much of this game boils down to those thankless jobs,” said Mike Sullivan after Game 1.  “It's about winning puck battles along the walls, gaining lines, gaining zones. That's how you control territory.”

“If you're losing your fair share of those, it's hard to get the puck back.  I know that's an area where this team prides itself in.  We weren't as good as we normally are at it.  Our players are well aware of it.”

They got better in Game 2.  Peter Laviolette is aware of it.  Pekka Rinne is aware of it.  P.K. Subban is aware of it.

The catalyst of a complete team comes from the battles for the puck we all seem to take for granted.  Puck battles resulted in odd-man rushes that led to two goals Wednesday night, including a textbook Chris Kunitz-to-Evgeni Malkin give-and-go with a Geno top shelf finish that would have made Stockton and Malone blush.

“We played a better game for sure,” said Malkin.  “After the second, last 10 minutes of the second period, I thought we played great.  We had better speed.  We didn’t play behind.  We had a couple of 2-on-1’s.  We played smarter.  It’s a big win.”

Phil Kessel and Scott Wilson put together an almost carbon-copy of Malkin and Kunitz’s 2-on-1 break, which scored the second goal of the game on the Wilson finish.

Speed, execution and an opportunistic mentality made those odd-man rushes goal-scoring odd-man rushes.

More than the fair share would pull the “lucky” card on Pittsburgh.  In the unorthodox theme of Game 1 maybe a little pixy dust was used in the black and gold’s favor.  In Game 2, all of it was perfectly-timed surgical hockey.

“I wouldn't say we stole a game. I think we played pretty well,” said Conor Sheary, who had an assist on Jake Guentzel’s first goal of the night Wednesday.  “The shot clock wasn't really indicative of how the game was played.”

The Predators topped Pittsburgh 38-27 in shots on goal, after hanging a 26-12 difference in Game 1.  Only four of those shots passed Matt Murray this series, which brings us to the next simple equation to the formula of a complete team.

The youngsters play like veterans.

Murray stands with hall of fame caliber names when it comes to the incredible, underappreciated numbers the 23-year-old has cemented in his short postseason career.  The sophomore has eclipsed 20 wins in just 27 postseason games with Wednesday night’s 4-1 victory.  That’s something that hasn’t been accomplished since Grant Fuhr’s second-year campaign in Edmonton.

“I don’t have any control over how many goals we score,” said a confident Murray.  “I have full belief in this team, but, that being said, my job is to stop the puck.  That’s where my mindset stays.”

His mindset, and his veins, are something only an Everest climber in cargo shorts could emulate.  The netminder is flowing ice cold to the Predators.  An unforgiving, consistent cavalcade of diving stops, precision snags and top-tier stick work.

“He’s excellent.  Huge, huge saves at key times in these games for us.  He’s been phenomenal,” said Chris Kunitz of Murray.  “At times when we can’t control play, he’s our best out there when keeping them off the board.”

The latter of Kunny’s comments serve as the basic key cog that makes a goaltender most valuable.  When all else fails, the man with the blocker and a glove is the drawbridge operator.  This series, Murray’s command so far has left countless pucks in a moat of disrepair for Nashville.

Guentzel’s story is one you’ll find in every newspaper, every blog, every sports show, after the rookie planted two goals on Rinne in Game 2.

But what makes the top postseason goal scorer (12) of any North American hockey player to ever lace up skates in the NHL so special is not his finishing prowess.

“He’s fearless,” said Kunitz.

“When you have that fearless attitude, you have a chance to get pucks closer to you when you go to those tough areas,” continued the veteran.  “He’s done a great job of scoring big goals for this team, and he’s growing.  He’s a kid that’s mature, and he’s tough.”

All 5-11 and 180 lbs of the kid is pure strength.  He’ll battle for pucks, make the off-puck plays and push-and-pull in the crease with the rest of them.  Guentzel’s most unsung moment of the postseason didn’t even come from his own goal score, but a model screen he put on Rinne as Malkin ripped a one-timer, which tipped off the goalie’s glove and in, which opened the scoring in Game 1.  Without the blinding pick, it’s just another pedestrian save for the Predators’ netminder in a scoreless affair. 

Alas, the last piece of the complete team calculation.

The Pens sacrifice it all

The screens, the blocked shots, they are all cogs in the sacrifice of the body for the good of the team.

Nobody gave a better example of that than Nick Bonino Wednesday night.  Midway through the first period, the center took a rocket from the stick of Subban right to his ankle, successfully blocking the shot during the man-advantage for Nashville, but needing assistance from two teammates as he struggled keeping balance on the way to the bench.

“I think Nick's willingness to sacrifice his body to help us on the penalty kill is inspiring for the team,” said Sullivan.  “Those are the types of plays that help teams win, especially at this time of year. That was a big part of the game for us tonight.  I thought those guys did a terrific job. 

“I always use the phrase that I think we're a scrappy group.  It's not always pretty, but this group is resilient, we're scrappy, we're competitive,” Sully continued.  “We just stay with it. It's a stick-to-itiveness that I think this group has, and I think they believe in one another.”

The Penguins have led the league in blocked shots in both the regular season and the postseason.

When you add the math up, the sum is quite clear: success = inevitable. 

You don’t just win with superstars like Malkin and Sidney Crosby on the ice.  It takes a team to win a Cup.  A team that understands the true success in hockey comes from plays that fail to show up on a stat sheet at the end of the night.

Nashville is learning basic arithmetic the hard way. 

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