It took the NHL All Star Break, an injury to arguably the team and league’s most valuable player, and back-to-back road games against two tough Eastern Conference foes, but the Nashville Predators finally became the last of the 30 teams in the league to lose back-to-back games this season. After a spectacular comeback against former head coach Barry Trotz and the Washington Capitals at Bridgestone Arena last Friday, the team headed north to face their former Western Conference rival Detroit Red Wings. With star goaltender Pekka Rinne injured during the Caps game, the team handed the crease to their sophomore back up, Carter Hutton, who performed admirably in emergency duty vs. Washington. Hutton, however, was unable to last through period one giving up three goals on four shots in a little over twelve and a half minutes of work before being pulled for Marek Mazanec, recalled from Milwaukee earlier in the day.
While it was hard to pin the blame entirely on Hutton, as the entire team seemed to be playing with substantially less intensity than they had shown the night before, it was easy for the casual fan to pile on the criticism of the netminder, citing his inability to come up with the spectacular saves that they’d been accustomed to seeing from Rinne over the course of the first half of the season.
Tuesday night, in Montreal, coach Peter Laviolette returned Hutton to the crease, and midway through the second period there was little cause for concern as the Preds dominated in every area of the game except the scoresheet. While things were knotted at zero, Montreal was being outshot 25-4, and Hutton could have cited boredom over the first thirty minutes. While the Canadiens push back began during the second half of the second period, it was Nashville who got on the scoreboard first as former Hab Mike Ribiero deflected a Seth Jones shot in behind Montreal goalie Carey Price for a 1-0 lead. Montreal took advantage of an early power play to tie the game in the opening minutes of the third period, as Alexander Galchenyuk beat Hutton with his own deflection of P.K. Subban’s blast from the point. Things stayed knotted through the end of regulation, and the Preds had gained an all important point, but could not turn it into two, as with forward Craig Smith flagged for tripping, Montreal’s star defenseman P.K. Subban again found his spot and picked his corner to give the Habs the 2-1 overtime victory.
There could be little criticism of Hutton’s game in Montreal, as he rose to the occasion and made timely stops while waiting (and hoping) for some offense from his teammates. Only two power play goals beat him in this one, and when the teams headed to their respective locker rooms, Montreal had moved their shot count from the aforementioned four, midway through the game, to a much more respectable 27 by game’s end. A tough loss, indeed!
Now, the team has six days off, save for Captain/defenseman Shea Weber, and rookie forward Filip Forsberg who head to Columbus to take part in the NHL All-Star festivities. With the injury to Pekka Rinne, the league misses the chance to showcase the Finn who has been an elite force between the pipes for the Preds this season. UPDATE: However, an injury to Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin means an opportunity for the rookie Forsberg to play in the game. Forsberg had previously only been called upon to compete in the Young Guns competition with other rookies from this year’s class.
As for the Preds, they sit atop the Central Division with an overall record of 30 wins, 10 losses, and 5 overtime losses, good for 65 points. Only the Anaheim Ducks, with 66 points (30-10-6) have more, but have played one more game than Nashville.
Despite Rinne’s injury, and his expected absence for the better part of the next 3-4 weeks, the Predators are a solid post-season contender, and who knows, a hot goalie coming back refreshed for the stretch run may be just what the doctor ordered for the team and their fans.
For now, Nashville hangs its hat on Hutton and Mazanec, who teamed up and delivered some quality goaltending over stretches last year when Rinne missed 51 games with a hip injury and subsequent infection. Continued solid play from forwards Forsberg, Ribiero, James Neal, Colin Wilson and the defense of Weber, Jones, Roman Josi and Mattias Ekholm means each Preds opponent must expect a challenge for 60 minutes from this well coached squad.
While the All-Star Game is always a fun spectacle, and fans locally will be able to witness the spectacle next season when the 2016 weekend will be held here at Bridgestone Arena, for now it’s a good chance to reflect on a marvelous first half, let the players catch some rest, and return focused on the matter at hand, as each game gets more and more important to bank points for potential home ice advantage in the post season.
We will be with you through the second half of this magical season as the Nashville Predators continue to perform amongst the NHL elite.