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Penguins

Star wars: Penguins' Sidney Crosby confident team can solve Predators' vaunted defense

| Sunday, June 4, 2017, 8:24 p.m.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — When Penguins center Evgeni Malkin suggested before the start of the Stanley Cup Final that Nashville's defensive corps included four players deserving of the same level of respect as Ottawa star and two-time Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson, his remark represented something between a half-joke and an exaggeration for most who heard it.

Four games into the series, the Predators' top four on the back end — Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, P.K. Subban and Mattias Ekholm — continue to see their reputations rise as they refuse to shrivel and shrink under the star power of Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel.

The two-way value of Nashville's defensemen became particularly apparent during Saturday's Game 3, when Malkin and Crosby combined for zero shots on goal and one point while Josi, Ellis, Ekholm and Subban combined for five points and 11 shots. How to swing the matchups — Crosby often on the ice against Josi and Ellis, and Malkin out against Ekholm and Subban — in the Penguins' favor is a question with no easy answers, but the stars and their coach consider the challenge solvable as they look ahead to Monday's Game 4.

“The best thing you can do is challenge them, keep going at them, trying to force their mistakes,” Crosby said. “The more you do that, the more chances you have of them making a mistake. They don't make a lot of them, but you've just got to continue pressuring them.”

Particularly for Crosby, major minutes against top-pair defensemen is nothing new. He still regards Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom, a seven-time Norris winner and the central piece of the Red Wings' blue line during the 2008 and '09 Cup Final, as possibly the best two-way player to test the Penguins. But he acknowledges Nashville's defensemen deserve some props.

“You play against different styles of defensemen,” Crosby said. “With them, they just skate themselves out of trouble. They don't spend a lot of time in their end. I think the times where you do get the puck and you do get possession, you've got to challenge them and force them to play defense.”

Despite their zero combined shots, Crosby and Malkin still created scoring chances, a reality emphasized by coach Mike Sullivan. Malkin did not get credit for a shot attempt, and Crosby registered three. The only other time both dressed and neither finished with a shot on goal was March 22, 2009, according to hockey-reference.com. But Sullivan considered those statistics too short on nuance.

“We certainly drill down a whole lot closer to the game than (shot attempts),” Sullivan said. “There are opportunities where these guys had, in pretty good areas, to put the puck on the net, and they chose not to.

“As a coach, it's always a fine line because you don't want to interfere with their instincts. If they see plays that they think are there to be made, then they're going to try to make them. I think what we try to do with them is just try to get them to think in terms of having that shot-first mindset.”

Changes in mindsets might generate better results for Crosby and Malkin, but they're unlikely to change up how Nashville handles its matchups, particularly when the Predators are at home and get last-change rights.

Crosby spent about 11 of his 15-plus minutes of five-on-five ice time in Game 3 against Josi and Ellis, and Malkin logged eight of his almost 11 minutes against Subban and Ekholm, according to naturalstattrick.com. During Games 1 and 2, Sullivan got his stars away from Nashville's preferred matchups more often and notably got Crosby out for more shifts against the Predators third pair, Matt Irwin and Yannick Weber.

Laviolette explained at the start of the series he preferred to use Subban and Ekholm against power forwards but trusted Josi and Ellis, both smaller defensemen, in any scenarios. He championed Josi's defensive gifts again after Game 3.

As much as he admires the talents of Nashville's defensemen, Sullivan still trusts his stars enough to send them over the boards against anyone at any time. He sees no need to rethink the Stanley Cup Final's chess match.

“This coaching staff has never been one to take our team out of the flow to try to chase matchups,” Sullivan said. “When they're at their best, regardless of who their opponent is, they're going to have their hands full.”

Bill West is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at wwest@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BWest_Trib.

Penguins center Sidney Crosby looks toward the front of the goal against the Predators in the third period during Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final on Saturday, June 3, 2017, at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn.
Christian Tyler Randolph | Tribune-Review
Penguins center Sidney Crosby looks toward the front of the goal against the Predators in the third period during Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final on Saturday, June 3, 2017, at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn.
Penguins center Evgeni Malkin skates past Predators left wing Pontus Aberg in the third period during Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final on Saturday, June 3, 2017, at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn.
Christian Tyler Randolph | Tribune-Review
Penguins center Evgeni Malkin skates past Predators left wing Pontus Aberg in the third period during Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final on Saturday, June 3, 2017, at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn.
Predators defenseman P.K. Subban (76) against the Penguins in the second period of Game 1 of the NHL Stanley Cup Finals on Monday May 29, 2017 at PPG Paints Arena.
Christian Tyler Randolph | Tribune-Review
Predators defenseman P.K. Subban (76) against the Penguins in the second period of Game 1 of the NHL Stanley Cup Finals on Monday May 29, 2017 at PPG Paints Arena.
The Predators' Roman Josi celebrates after scoring a second-period goal against the Penguins' Matt Murray in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final on June 3, 2017 in Nashville, Tenn.
Getty Images
The Predators' Roman Josi celebrates after scoring a second-period goal against the Penguins' Matt Murray in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final on June 3, 2017 in Nashville, Tenn.
Penguins center Evgeni Malkin celebrates a goal against the Predators in the third period during Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday, May 31, 2017, at PPG Paints Arena.
Christian Tyler Randolph | Tribune-Review
Penguins center Evgeni Malkin celebrates a goal against the Predators in the third period during Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday, May 31, 2017, at PPG Paints Arena.
The Penguins' Sidney Crosby sets up in front of the Predators' Pekka Rinne during the first period in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final on June 3, 2017 in Nashville, Tenn.
Getty Images
The Penguins' Sidney Crosby sets up in front of the Predators' Pekka Rinne during the first period in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final on June 3, 2017 in Nashville, Tenn.
Predators defenseman Mattias Ekholm shoves Penguins center Matt Cullen in the second period during Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday, May 31, 2017, at PPG Paints Arena.
Christian Tyler Randolph | Tribune-Review
Predators defenseman Mattias Ekholm shoves Penguins center Matt Cullen in the second period during Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday, May 31, 2017, at PPG Paints Arena.
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