The Pittsburgh Penguins needed any kind of rebound they could get in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final on Thursday, returning home after back-to-back slip-ups against the underdog Nashville Predators on the road.
They got a big one.
It may have featured more than one example of Sidney Crosby antics, but a 6-0 explosion, complete with multipoint outings for Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, not to mention scores from a slew of other players overdue on the stat sheet, sent Nashville's Pekka Rinne to the bench for the second time in the series, flipped the script on an overwhelmed Preds team and handed the series lead back to Pittsburgh in dominating fashion.
Two straight games of Predators glory in front of a roaring Bridgestone Arena crowd must have injected the Pens with life early in Thursday's matchup. The PPG Paints Arena audience was on its collective feet within a few minutes as Pittsburgh's signature speed, quieted for long stretches of Games 3 and 4 in Nashville, put pressure on Rinne early and often and got the defending champs on the board just 1:31 into the opening period.
Arguably the catalyst of the Preds' two-game surge at home after a porous start to the series, Rinne was too late to stop Justin Schultz's early drive that put Pittsburgh on top and snapped the club's power-play drought after 15 straight missed opportunities.
And after a frantic set of subsequent plays, halted briefly by the quick sticks of Nashville's feisty blue-liners, the veteran goalie was bested once again, this time on a backhander from Bryan Rust, perhaps best known for his work in Pens elimination games. The argument can be made Rinne should have snagged Rust's shot, which came just over five minutes after Schultz's kickoff score, and that is especially the case after back-to-back MVP-caliber outings for the Preds' No. 1 man in the net.
But the Pens, as was the case much earlier in the series and in the best of their playoff wins, used fast-paced passing to get in and out of zones, drive Rinne to take chances with the puck outside the crease and, ultimately, own the first 20 minutes of play.
Pittsburgh's first-period rout, capped with a score from Evgeni Malkin in the last 11 seconds before the first break, finally got one of the Pens' under-performing offensive standouts involved, too.
But it did not come without some controversy, as Malkin's goal came after minor penalties were assessed to both Sidney Crosby and the Preds' P.K. Subban. The latter, whose on-ice feud with Crosby has lasted just about the entire series, took a swing at No. 87 to draw discipline from the officials -- but only after Crosby had Subban pinned down (in front of a referee, no less) and repeatedly shoved his head into the ice.
Conor Sheary and Kessel, the latter of whom was another of the Pens' struggling stars entering Game 5, rubbed even more salt in the wound with goals in the first nine minutes of the second period, during which Nashville called upon Juuse Saros to relieve an embattled Rinne.
And while Pittsburgh's long-awaited offensive surge completely overshadowed the Preds' usually stingy defensemen and all but turned the final 35 minutes of Thursday's bout into a warm-up skate for a return to Music City, it also didn't fail to elicit additional protest, particularly from Nashville's Peter Laviolette.
Replays showed that Crosby had tossed a water bottle onto the ice from the bench, apparently in frustration over an uncalled penalty (yes, really) prior to Kessel's score.
By that point, however, Pittsburgh's high-speed offense, previously dormant with a combined two goals in Games 3-4, had already stolen the show and sealed a blowout victory. The Preds' scrappy attempts at retaliation, somewhat reminiscent of the discipline problems that plagued them in early-series defeats on the road, didn't exactly put a damper on the Penguins' triumphant rebound, either. A spry goal from Ron Hainsey -- and third point from Kessel -- with less than four minutes to go in the second put the defending title winners up 6-0 after a slow reach from Saros in Nashville's net.
Matt Murray, meanwhile, had a quiet, albeit shutdown, performance for Pittsburgh's defense after surrendering eight goals in two starts at Bridgestone Arena. His 24 saves kept the Preds off the board, even if the waning minutes were relegated to little more than an opportunity for each side to dish out some extra contact.
The Pens, in a likable manner or not, got a big night from exactly the guys who needed one, mirrored the shutdown atmosphere of the Preds' victories in Nashville with absurd scoring efficiency and, most of all, ensured themselves a chance at either spoiling their opponent's first-ever title run in Sunday's Game 6 or returning home next week for a shot at a repeat title in front of their Pittsburgh fans.
Believe it or not, every team that has lost by at least six goals in 2017's Stanley Cup Playoffs -- both the Edmonton Oilers and Ottawa Senators did so before the Final -- came back to win their next game. So Nashville and its own frenetic crowds, which have , have recent history on their side.
Until then, however, after Thursday night's blowout and another sharp turn in a championship series of back-and-forths, one thing is clear: The defending champs aren't dead yet.