Wednesday night’s playoff game vs. Phoenix was a must-win for the Nashville Predators, and they did it in style, getting two first-period goals and holding on for a 2-0 victory over the Coyotes. It was truly a “must-have” win for the Preds, who’d lost the series’ first three games in Phoenix.
Tonight’s contest, which starts at 6:30 Central, is also crucial to Nashville’s chances, for it will have to win Monday in Phoenix, in Nashville on Wednesday, and in Phoenix again next Friday if it can’t get a victory tonight. With that, here are three big questions for Nashville tonight.
Which Pekka Rinne shows up?
Nashville’s star goaltender gave up nine goals in the first two games, which was fairly shocking considering he’s one of three nominees for the Vezina Trophy, given to the NHL’s top goaltender. All those goals weren’t Rinne’s fault – an ill-fated, over-the-net hand-pass from teammate David Legwand in Game 2 that resulted in an easy Phoenix goal comes to mind as Exhibit A – but at the same time, Rinne was more Clark Kent and less Superman in the first two games.
Perhaps Rinne had left his phone booth in Nashville, because Predators fans got to see the familiar version in Game 3. Rinne stopped all 32 shots he faced, and if you enjoy watching great goaltending, go back and watch the third period if you haven’t: Rinne’s play was simply jaw-dropping as he turned back one good shot after another, including a few when the Coyotes had a 5-on-3 advantage.
Rinne led the league in wins and saves in the regular season, and gave up an average of just 2.39 goals. The way his counterpart Mike Smith is playing for Phoenix, Rinne needs to approach that level of play again on Friday.
What’s Alexander Radulov’s role tonight?
As everyone knows, Radulov and teammate Andre Kostitsyn were suspended for breaking curfew in Phoenix. Radulov also got roasted on national television for his play in Game 2, when NBC’s Keith Jones questioned his work ethic. So, Preds coach Barry Trotz isn’t happy with his Russian star, and I don’t blame him.
However, I suggest that if Radulov’s head is right, Trotz needs to get in a forgiving mood in a hurry. Radulov’s speed and stick-handling are simply magnificent, and he’s the one guy the Preds have who’s most capable of making something from nothing.
While the Preds’ righteous indignation may have been magnified by the fact that they won without Radulov, the fact is their offense was very mediocre without him on Wednesday. One of the two goals was a gift when Smith wandered too far out of the net to get to a puck and couldn’t get back in time, and of the 26 shots that Nashville had, most didn’t require spectacular saves.
While the Preds may have won without Radulov on Wednesday, they won because of Rinne. Nashville’s offense simply isn’t the same without Radulov on the ice, but Trotz is still hinting that he could still sit him on Friday. If Radulov indeed got the message that Trotz delivered through the benching, that would be a big mistake.
How will the Predators perform on the power play?
The Predators were great in the regular season on the power play, and horrible on it in the Red Wings’ series, which they managed to win anyway. That was really more a testament to how great Rinne and the defense were as opposed to proof that power plays aren’t important, however.
Nashville turned that around in the first two games of this series, getting three of its six goals with a man advantage, the losses were a result of failed defense more than anything.
Eventually, everything comes full-circle. On Wednesday, though, the Preds’ offense wasn’t good, in no small part because it failed to scratch in eight power play opportunities. The way Smith is playing, the Preds must start converting these chances.