We have been saying it for weeks. It might just have finally happened. Kevin Fiala scored the game-winning goal in overtime against the Chicago Blackhawks Monday night, sealing a 3-2 Predators victory and making a statement that he has arrived.
The 20-year-old winger become the youngest player in Preds history to score an overtime goal - two years younger than Matt Halischuk was in 2011 when he scored an overtime winner against Vancouver.
With 3:16 left in the overtime period, Fiala took a James Neal pass, skated toward the net and buried one past a diving Corey Crawford. It was his second goal in as many games, and was the biggest goal of the Swiss forward’s career.
“That’s good for him,” Predators coach Peter Laviolette said. “He’s a young kid. He’s in a big situation like that, and I thought he handled it well tonight. You talk about experiences you grow and learn from, whether they’re coming back in the third period or not – a young player like Kevin – I thought that he played a really good game tonight.
“He had lots of looks and lots of opportunities, even in the first period. He had a quick hand play, where he got a good shot off on net. Some of his best chances was in this game in overtime. The last goal was a really patient goal. To wait it out like that – it was nice to see.”
Prior to scoring his second-career playoff goal, Fiala had two opportunities to end the game even earlier. His first attempt was stopped by Crawford. On his second attempt – at point blank range in front of the net – Crawford made a ridiculous save, robbing him yet again.
“It was a great save by Crawford and I was pretty angry there,” Fiala said. “I could’ve finished it there, but never mind, we won.”
After spending considerable time in Milwaukee, being recalled here and there and getting a taste of playoff hockey last season, Fiala has matured. In any other year, at any other point in his career, he may have gotten discouraged. But this is a different Kevin Fiala.
“It goes to confidence more than anything else,” Laviolette said. “He’s a young kid playing in a man’s league, and a really good league at that. I think young players, when they come in – they can grab experiences like that and try to take it and harness it and move forward with it.”
Thus far through three playoff games, against what was heralded as one of the top teams in the league, Fiala has excelled. The playoff stage has not looked too big for him. The Blackhawks don’t appear to intimidate him. And he is playing with the confidence and swagger that is needed to make a deep playoff run.
“I think it’s the team, just the character,” Fiala said. “Everybody, when we went in here after the third period, we could feel it, we were going to do it. Everybody believed in it, just working hard. From the first to the last guy, we knew we were going to do it.”
After scoring 11 goals in 54 games in the regular season, Fiala has two in three playoff games. His placement on a line with Calle Jarnkrok and James Neal has been advantageous to his development.
The biggest thing Fiala adds to this Predators team is depth scoring. His line, the much-heralded JOFA line, the Zolneirczyk-Fisher-Watson line, and the Aberg-Sissons-Smith line have all produced goals and points in this series. And as we all know, there is nothing more deadly than a playoff team with four legit scoring lines.
“That kid has come a long way this year,” center Ryan Johansen said. “His confidence and his swagger with the puck brings a good passion to the game.”