For additional insight into the Stanley Cup Final between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Nashville Predators, NHL.com has enlisted the help of Davis Payne to break down the action. Payne will be checking in throughout the series.
Payne, 46, was coach of the St. Louis Blues from 2010-11. The Blues were 67-55-15 under Payne.
He joined the Los Angeles Kings as an assistant on the staff of Darryl Sutter in the summer of 2012 and was with the Kings until April. He was on the Kings’ coaching staff during their Stanley Cup championship run in 2014.
NASHVILLE — Welcome to the Stanley Cup Final.
The emotion, the intensity and the battles … big and small. Former St. Louis Blues coach Davis Payne felt Game 3 between the Nashville Predators and Pittsburgh Penguins hit the right pitch on Saturday night at Bridgestone Arena. Nashville won 5-1, but the Penguins lead the best-of-7 series 2-1. Game 4 is here on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVA Sports).
“It looked like a Stanley Cup Final game,” Payne said. “That’s what you want to see. You want to see two teams have to battle all the way to the line and the best team wins.
“It should be last guy standing. This game was closer to that than any of the two previous games by a long shot.”
To that end, he was talking about the battles, for instance, between the likes of Nashville defenseman Mattias Ekholm and Penguins forward Chris Kunitz, and Predators forward James Neal against Pittsburgh defenseman Ian Cole.
“I thought that the emotion of the game was able to get itself to the level that it deserves,” Payne said. “The emotion of Ekholm against Kunitz in the corner. Or [Predators defenseman Ryan] Ellis against [Pittsburgh center Sidney] Crosby or [Evgeni] Malkin, net front, or Neal against Cole. Any of these battles that went on that were just a little bit beyond what the Final should be.”
During his time with the Kings, Payne saw plenty of Nashville defenseman Roman Josi, who had a goal and two assists in Game 3 against Pittsburgh. Josi had 10 points (three goals, seven assists) in 16 career games against the Kings.
“The three points is one thing but the space he’s able to close down and the ice he’s able to take away before any plays get to him is something you have to really watch closely,” Payne said. “He’s one of those defensemen that make the game look really easy because he’s a step ahead.
“Guys like that are very difficult to play against. You’re always continuing to fight for ice and opportunity to possess the puck.
“The other thing that makes him very difficult to play against and very effective is that he will take on a forecheck himself. He will absorb contact and beat you up ice, with or without the puck.”
His speed is deceptive, too.
“He has every intention of going hard past you,” Payne said. “He can skate and move; it doesn’t look like it all the time, but he’s one of those guys who is moving a heck of lot faster than it looks.”
It was another textbook performance by the Predators’ penalty-killers. The Penguins, who are 0-for-10 in the past two games, appear to be getting frustrated just as the Anaheim Ducks did in the Western Conference Final.
“We’ve talked about this since the Anaheim series,” Payne said. “The [zone] entry against this penalty-killing group is not easy. You’re going to have to work extremely hard in order to enter the zone with possession.
“I thought, particularly in Game 2, Pittsburgh had an answer for that and did a really good job of taking what was available to them, drawing Nashville into the middle of the ice and kicking the puck out to possession opportunities. But from there, the next adjustment is Nashville will come after you.
“They will come after you in zone. They’ll come after you with three guys to the outside and if you think you’re going to make an easy play or you think you’re going to make one play and have them back off, it’s not so.”
Payne also thought Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne found a way to make the timely save after the first period. He noted Penguins goalie Matt Murray managed to do that in Games 1 and 2.
“It changed the flow of the game [on Saturday] significantly,” Payne said. “I don’t think it was one goaltender outplaying the other, it was just timely saves when the direction of the game was in question.
“The second period comes along and [the Predators] score a power play goal and it’s 1-1, and immediately it goes to 2-1.
“You find a way to chip a goal in and then Rinne’s got to make a great save. He’s got to make a great save on a play to the back pad and that could have gone to 2-2 and sucked the air right out of the building.
“Not only him but [Predators defenseman] P.K. Subban found a way to keep the puck out of the net.
“That’s what this time of the year is all about.”