'Committed' Predators show bite
Some might think the Hockey Gods owed one to the Nashville Predators for handling the Alexander Radulov/Andrei Kostitsyn imbroglio "the right way."
The Hockey Gods help those who help themselves. And Wednesday night, the retooled Predators worked harder than the Phoenix Coyotes. They played smarter. They got better goaltending. They paid a stiffer price.
They earned their 2-0 win.
"It was rough for the first two games," said goaltender Pekka Rinne. "But we win these two here at home and we've got a different series."
They're halfway there.
And maybe more. Not to get too far ahead of ourselves, but this felt like more than just a single win that cut a series deficit in half. This was a night that the Predators rediscovered their fangs or, as winger Martin Erat colorfully noted, "showed some [guts]."
This was a moment.
After their Game 2 loss, Nashville coach Barry Trotz lamented that his key players simply weren't delivering at the level he expected. This time, he got what he was looking for.
"I was really proud of two things: A.) We got back to more of our identity, and B.) the group was really committed [after] all the stuff that went on the last couple of days,'' Trotz said before adding "Our best guys were our best guys."
That commitment -- a term Trotz emphasized a least a dozen times in his postgame interview -- was evident after a brief burst by Phoenix to start the contest. The Mike Fisher-Sergei Kostitsyn-Martin Erat and David Legwand-Patric Hornqvist-Gabriel Bourque lines were outstanding, quickly turning the tide with a ferocious forecheck that created multiple turnovers, two of which ended up behind Coyotes goalie Mike Smith.
Legwand capitalized on a Smith miscue to open the scoring at 8:10. Under pressure from the hard-charging Hornqvist, Smith rushed a clearing attempt behind the net and it was picked off by Bourque, then fed out front where Legwand wristed it into the empty cage.
A makeup gift from those Hockey Gods after Legwand's throwing error in Game 2? Hey, he worked for it.
Just 66 seconds later, Fisher added the insurance marker on a bang-bang play after Erat stripped the puck off Oliver Ekman-Larsson and found Kostitsyn in the slot. But Kostitsyn maddeningly bailed on the shot and passed it to Fisher off to the side. Fortunately for the Preds, Fisher's attempt to pass it back was deflected into the net by a failed poke check from Smith.
But, as always, the success of the Predators originated from the back end. The defense, led by All-Star caliber performances from Ryan Suter and Shea Weber, finally offered the sort of gritty, passionate effort that defines their ideal game. They weren't overly physical, but they kept the Coyotes to the outside for much of the night, limited their quality chances, and paid a far greater price than the 15 blocks on the stat sheet suggest.
Rinne clearly noticed.
"When you know what is happening in front of you, it makes everything easier," he told TSN. "Everything kind of slows down. It makes it easier to defend."
It certainly looked easier. After appearing rattled while allowing nine goals in the first two games in Phoenix, this was Rinne at his best, especially during a 41-second two-man disadvantage late in the third when a desperate pack of Coyotes created some treacherous chances down low.
"Pekka was tracking the puck really well," Trotz said. "He was finding pucks that were bouncing, rolling around. He was sharp tonight."
At this time of year, it can't just be the stars who respond to the pressure. Matt Halischuk and Jordin Tootoo, drafted from the Black Aces to replace the Preds' suspended pair, seemed to relish every shift. Halischuk made his mark early during a pair of Phoenix power plays, and was relentless on the forecheck.
Tootoo was Tootoo: aggressive, physical, but smart. There was concern that he might go overboard trying to prove he belonged after earlier expressing frustration at being scratched. Instead, he kept himself under control. He played the body when he had a chance, made good decisions in the defensive zone and even created a few solid offensive chances.
Their play, as much as the win, answered the night's second-biggest question.
"It's a privilege to play for the Cup, and those guys took advantage of the privilege," Trotz said. "It's only a few minutes after the game, so I don't want to give any answers, but it would hard to change [the lineup for Game 4] when everyone was as committed as they were."
Odds are he'll feel the same way come Saturday. How could he not? This group rallied around each other to fend off the distraction caused by Radulov and Kostitsyn, and, in the process, found the focus that was lacking in Games 1 and 2.
Radulov and Kostitsyn can keep the silver sweaters of the Black Aces. Nashville doesn't need them.
These are the new Predators. And this is their moment.