There are a number of things we’ve learned over the course of this postseason about the Nashville Predators. For one, you can’t count them out of a game, even when they have played their absolute worst hockey for stretches of ten to fifteen minutes at the start of the most important game of their season.
Such was the case on Monday night at Bridgestone Arena, when the team managed no shots on goal through the first ten minutes of the contest, and by the twelve minute mark found themselves down by two goals to the high flying San Jose Sharks. Granted, the first goal was a near impossible deflection that stunned both Preds goaltender Pekka Rinne, and the sellout crowd, who showed up ready to cheer their team on to victory, and were instead wondering if their team had decided to hand in their uniforms and concede defeat almost before the game had even started.
A second goal by Sharks fourth-line forward Chris Tierney gave the opponents a 2-0 lead and with the Preds play so lackluster, more than a few “seventh men” started thinking about the handshake line, and the offseason. But, it was with about five minutes to go in the first period that the team, and fans, got what they so desperately needed.
While the box score shows an unassisted goal by defenseman Roman Josi, it was the work of the line of Mike Fisher, Colin Wilson and James Neal that got the puck into the San Jose zone, with Neal attempting a shot that never got through to goaltender Martin Jones and as the Sharks attempted to clear, the puck came to Josi, who floated one past Jones and the Preds, as if on the operating table in an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, showed a sign of life for the first time.
Going into the dressing room between periods one and two down by just one seemed to be just what the doctor ordered, as the team came out flying and out played San Jose, really for the remainder of the game. A Ryan Johansen sighting, rare over the past few games, netted the equalizer early in period two, and the Preds outshot the Sharks 14-4, setting the tone for an exciting final period of regulation.
Special teams had not played a part in this game through the first two periods, with the refs calling just coincidental roughing minors near the end of the first period and nothing in the second. In the third, both teams had a single power play chance.
Early in the period, the Preds were given an opportunity to take the lead as Sharks forward Joe Pavelski took a hooking penalty, but the Preds man advantage yielded nothing. Midway through the frame, Miikka Salomaki was called for a high sticking offense, and the Sharks went to work. Just over a minute into their power play the puck went to Logan Couture just above the left faceoff dot, and with Rinne having fallen on his own accord, the net was wide open for a devastating San Jose lead, 3-2.
While, save for that minute and five seconds, the Preds continued to apply pressure, and keep the crowd cheering relentlessly, it was a little less than three minutes later, with just over seven minutes to go in regulation when Neal teamed up with Wilson for the equalizer.
The play started with some unheralded work by third-pairing defenseman, rookie Tony Bitetto, who brought the puck into the Shark zone and was then knocked down with a heavy hit by Patrick Marleau. He managed to get the puck to Mike Ribeiro, who sent it cross ice to Neal, who completed the fantastic tic-tac-toe pass to Wilson, who potted his fifth goal of the post season, and yes, once again, we mention that his disappointing regular season, scoring just six times, has been virtually erased by his Herculean efforts in the playoffs. Game Tied! Overtime awaits.
Fans remembering Game 4, flocked to the concession stands to get their overtime provisions, figuring to settle in for another “into the wee hours of the morning” affair, but a most unlikely Nashville Predator had a different script in mind.
Let me say this. Over the course of this season, I have continually praised a diminutive rookie forward named Viktor Arvidsson. The kid has given his all shift after shift, and though he was rarely rewarded on the scoresheet, his efforts could not go unnoticed by his teammates, his coaching staff, and most of the fans in the building. Constantly barreling towards the net, facing defensemen seemingly twice as big as him, Arvidsson is fearless and always willing to pay the price to continue moving the puck forward. His shoot-first ask questions later mode paid dividends in overtime for the Preds.
With just two minutes gone in the extra frame, Rinne cleared the puck to Salomaki, who harmlessly directed the puck through the neutral zone. Arvidsson, whose radar for loose pucks is almost unparalleled on this team, won a brief battle with Shark forward Melker Karlsson, and with speed, and on his backhand, fired a shot that eluded Jones and sent the Preds fans into “seventh heaven,” as once again the team, facing elimination lived to see another day, setting the stage for, again, the most important game in team history.
Faceoff in San Jose is at 8pm Central Time on Thursday night for a group of bewildered Sharks and buoyed Predators!
Granted, San Jose has won all three contests in their building, as the Preds have here, and that’s why they use the term “home ice advantage.” Certainly for Nashville, home ice has been key in this series, because the fans do, in fact, go above and beyond to help create this advantage. Now, the team heads into hostile waters, as they did in Anaheim a couple weeks back, determined to move forward and play for the Conference championship (vs. the winner of the to-be-determined Dallas v. St. Louis game 7 – tonight.)
Five things you should know about this Game 7?
1. Don’t count the Preds out of stealing this most important game in the “away” arena. The Sharks play better on the road has been the credo of their team all year long, and though it hasn’t been apparent in this particular series, now is as good as any time to make this adjustment, and let Nashville steal one in the opposition’s building.
2. High praise for the work of Fisher-Wilson-Neal. Though center Mike Ribeiro was on ice with the two wingers for the game-tying goal on Monday night, it’s been this trio of forwards that have carried the team through the bulk of this series. Look for 12-33-18 on the ice, and when they have the puck, scoot up on the edge of your seat and scream!
3. Roman Josi broke the ice with his first playoff goal of the post-season. He was not in a slump, but he was without a lamplighter. This has changed, and now we hope the floodgates will open and Josi will shoot more, pass less, and score another key goal in game 7.
4. I’ve questioned the work ethic of number one center Ryan Johansen, as he went over nine periods without a shot on goal. An unacceptable total through any three periods, much less nine, Johansen brought his “A” game to the table at Bridgestone, and must do so again tomorrow night. He wears #92, and he will frequently look as if he’s moving in slow motion, but occasionally that will throw an opposing goaltender off just enough to pot a beauty, as he did Monday night. More, more, more JoJo.
5. The seventh man. It gets clichéd to speak of what the Predators fans have seemingly willed to happen on the ice in this series, but tomorrow night, we need the mojo sent directly into the televisions across middle Tennessee and beyond. This IS the most important game in Preds history. We can prevail. Are you with us?