After a disappointing loss to the Detroit Red Wings on Thursday, the Nashville Predators returned to home ice for a matinee game against the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Blue Jackets staggered into Bridgestone Arena with a record of 8-8-5, having lost 5 of their last 6 games.
The hockey intrigue started even before puck drop, and let’s just say Twitter responded with enthusiasm. That first line combo (Eeli Tolvanen, Filip Forsberg, and Mikhail Granlund) and the return of the recently-whispered-about Mattias Ekholm from IR fanned a tiny ember of hope for Predators fans.
Juuse Saros started in goal, after watching Pekka Rinne stand in net the last three games.
Would the struggling Predators or the struggling Blue Jackets come out on top? Let’s find out.
Within the first minute of play, a returning Ekholm blocked a Blue Jackets shot, reminding Preds fans that the Big Swedish Redwood is smorgasbord of talent. Nashville had an early odd-man rush and good offensive pressure, but nothing resulting in a goal. Saros made several saves in the first five minutes to shake off any netminder cobwebs, including a point-blank save on an Eric Robinson shot.
The Predators were aggressive with the puck, had traffic in front of the net, and didn’t treat the slot like it was the oozing hills of Mount Vesuvius early in the period. Unfortunately, a turnover by Rocco Grimaldi resulted in a 2-on-none, and Columbus went up 1-0 with the Cam Atkinson goal at 7:26.
The Predators immediately responded with a 2 on 1 of their own, but—stop me if you’ve heard this one before—Viktor Arvidsson couldn’t find the back of the net. The Columbus goal seemed to sap a bit of intensity and energy from the Predators. The team got a chance to tip the scales back in their favor with a power play after Eeli Tolvanen drew a holding penalty at 13:50. Neither the first or second unit could establish significant possession, and the two minutes passed without yielding much except a slightly better rested Blue Jacket player.
At 17:40 the Predators were given another chance to play a man up with an obvious stick-snapping slash called on Jack Roslovic. After losing the power play face off, the first power play unit got only one shot off while the second unit got no shots on goal—another missed opportunity for the Predators.
The Preds started strong, but the turnover in the defensive zone cost not only a goal but momentum. First period ends with Columbus up 1-0.
The second period immediately began with good offensive energy from the Predators. With traffic in front of the net compliments of Mikhail Granlund, Mattias Ekholm sank a shot from the blue line and tied the game 1-1 just 1:12 into the period while earning his 200th career point.
The Predators continued a stretch of offensive pressure, unfortunately without result. At 5:08 Filip Forsberg took a seat in the sin bin (where there are, in fact, no snacks) for high sticking, and the Predators’ penalty kill faced its first challenge of the game. Saros came up with some key saves and the two minutes expired without incident.
The Predators kept pressure on Joonas Korpisalo, but the Blue Jackets’ big Finn was able to keep the puck out of the net. Columbus responded with a stretch of extended offensive zone time halfway through the period, but the Preds’ little Finn Juuse Saros kept the game even.
Clearly ready to leave the world of IR behind, Mattias Ekholm took a shot from the blue line through traffic and made it past Korpisalo for a nearly identical second goal of the game at 16:54.
Eric Haula performed a Bruce Lee-esque karate chop/slash at 17:24, putting the Blue Jackets a man up. The Predators’ penalty kill kept pressure on Columbus and shut down any advantage for two minutes. The period ended with the Predators up 2-1.
Right off the bat, Viktor Arvidsson tried a wraparound shot which zipped right across the front of the goal. The Predators had a 2-on-1 chance early as well, but the puck turned into a hot potato no Predator wanted to touch as it loitered right in front of the goal.
The Predators continued to press offensively, but the struggle to find the back of the net for the team continued through the first half of the period. Shot chances were plentiful, goals...not so much.
At 9:30 in the period, Matt Duchene used his violation voodoo to draw a hooking penalty from Seth Jones, putting the Predators on their third power play. Tolvanen took a few shots from his sweet spot, but neither really threatened the goaltender. The second unit wasn’t able to set up, and two minutes passed quickly.
A tripping call on Nick Foligno at 13:32 put the Predators on the power play for a fourth skater advantage. To keep Predators fans’ expectations in check, Colton Sissons was called for a tripping penalty during the power play. After a brief 4v4, the Blue Jackets went on the man advantage for just under two minutes.
With 1:33 left in the game, the Blue Jackets went empty net. Bridgestone (and all of Middle Tennessee) held their breath as Ryan Johansen, who is still looking for his first goal of the season, lofted a shot that ended up mere inches from the empty net.
The Predators held off the last-gasp efforts of Columbus, and won the game 2-1 thanks in large part to Mattias Ekholm.
- The Predators went into the third period with the lead for the first time this season. Read that again. Is it good to be a team that can dig deep at the end of a game to come back from a deficit? Yes. Is that really the skill and identity the Predators most needed to hone these last 20 games? Uh...no.
- While the Predators controlled the pace of the game for much of the 60 minutes, there were obvious “opportunities for growth”. Eliminating careless turnovers, efficient movement on the power play, and cleaner passing would help the Predators at least look competitive against tougher opponents.
- “Bittersweet” is the word to best describe seeing Mattias Ekholm having a great game. Of course, every Predators fan loves seeing Ekholm back on the ice and playing well. Unfortunately, his strong play will probably just fuel the trade rumors and make an offer from another team sweeter than a Saint Lucia basket of cookies.
The Predators and Blue Jackets face each other in less than 24 hours with the second of a back to back. Puck drop at Bridgestone is at 2:00 PM tomorrow and will be broadcast on Fox Sports-TN and 102.5.