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Nashville Predators 3, Dallas Stars 2 (SO): Saros shines in high-stakes Preds win

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The Preds eked out a victory against a Stars team that’s had their number in an absolutely critical game.

NHL: Dallas Stars at Nashville Predators Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The Nashville Predators and Dallas Stars met up tonight in a four-point game critical to both teams’ status in the playoff race. The Stars had won their previous game, against the Florida Panthers, as had the Chicago Blackhawks—the third team chasing that spot—against the Columbus Blue Jackets, while the Predators were shut out by the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Milwaukee Admirals/Chicago Wolves forward Tanner Jeannot was called up to replace Michael McCarron, suspended for two games after a completely unnecessary hit last night. Other than that, and Juuse Saros replacing Pekka Rinne in goal, the Predators’ roster remained the same.

Both teams traded some chances and zone time early, but the Stars drew first blood five minutes in as Roope Hintz continued his scoring tear, collecting a great pass from John Klingberg and lasering a shot past Juuse Saros. The Preds attempted to respond, and Yakov Trenin set out to work on his wrecking ball impersonation, but the Stars’ defense held the line until the Preds’ offensive push expired.

At around the halfway mark of the period, Klingberg and Viktor Arvidsson got into a scuffle after Anton Khudobin made a save, though no penalties were called. Still, hostility was visibly simmering as the other eight skaters on the ice all gathered around the spot, and it was obvious already that this was not going to be a peaceful game.

A break from hostilities came just a minute after, when Ryan Ellis, in his second game back from injury, tied the game with a wild shot through traffic from the blue line itself; a screen from Calle Järnkrok helped it go in. Unlike last night, the puck remained onside, by inches, and the goal counted, giving the Predators the tying score.

However, a few minutes later, the looming first (and, surprisingly, only) fight of the night did break out as Blake Comeau checked Mattias Ekholm hard along the benches and this somehow led to (again) Arvidsson fighting Andrew Cogliano. Although initially the fight seemed to be tilted in Cogliano’s favor, Arvidsson did manage to get the takedown. The Preds were leading in hits, and some of those hits had been very impressive—Jeannot skating on undisturbed after Jamie Oleksiak lined him up for a hit, while Oleksiak was knocked off his feet by the impact, was particularly surprising—but, while these made a good highlights package for the folks at Bally Sports Southeast, they didn’t help change the score.

With the period almost over, Ekholm went end to end, managing to get a pass off feet away from Khudobin and with the entire Stars defense finally all rushing in on him, but Mikael Granlund didn’t manage to pick up the puck.

Roman Josi and Jamie Benn had some unfriendly words in the final minute of the period, with Ryan Johansen swooping in to back Josi up if needed. However, play resumed, and we eventually cut to intermission with no further penalties or scores—though the promise of both. After the buzzer sounded, Comeau and Ben Harpur exchanged words as well.

The Preds got the first chance of the second period, with Granlund getting a shot from downtown on goal, possibly tipped by Järnkrok. At the other end of the ice, Ekholm cross-checked Comeau into the cage after Saros covered the puck and a referee had to pull Comeau off of him. No penalties were assessed on the play.

Just over two minutes into the period, Trenin scored off a Colton Sissons pass from behind the net, with Jeannot screening Khudobin, to give the Preds the lead. Denis Gurianov tried to answer back a couple of shifts later, streaking down the ice, but Josi was able to catch him, retrieve the puck, and turn it back up toward Dallas’s end as the teams resumed trading chances.

Meanwhile, hostilities continued as Granlund cross-checked Joe Pavelski repeatedly in front of the Preds’ net, then skated away to follow the puck up ice as Pavelski shook off one of his gloves. A few minutes after that, Comeau—again—missed a check on Josi, turned and hit Josi as he overbalanced and fell over while dodging the check, followed Josi up the ice, made fist contact with Josi’s helmet...and Josi was called for tripping as Comeau went to the ice after that.

I’m not saying Josi didn’t trip Comeau, but I am saying that the sheer amount of nonsense from players on both teams that the refs haven’t called this game is egregious. Also, I am saying the next Dallas Star to touch Josi’s head is not earning himself a place in my good books any more than Comeau is.

Järnkrok had a shorthanded chance on the Stars’ power play, but was unable to score; the Predators’ penalty kill was fierce and aggressive throughout, keeping the Stars well out of the zone. Right after they’d killed the penalty, Rocco Grimaldi drew one for the Preds, as Oleksiak failed to slow him down even with both arms pretty much wrapped around him.

Without Eeli Tolvanen, who’s still missing due to injury, the Predators’ power play has struggled again, and although the Predators were able to get some zone time, they were not able to convert, with the only noteworthy outcome of the power play for either team being Stars defender Andrej Sekera heading down the tunnel after blocking a shot. As Bryan said during first intermission, keeping play 5v5 would benefit the Predators; on the other hand, if the teams are going to play like this, I don’t know that they will or should have much of a choice.

And, indeed, just moments later, Trenin was called for cross-checking Oleksiak, who had taken a rare break from getting dumped on his hindquarters by Jeannot to actually skate with the puck. Hintz and Jason Robertson combined for a spectacular chance on the Stars’ ensuing power play, but Hintz shot high of the net and the Predators escaped that shift, as well as the power play as a whole. As the penalty expired, Jamie Benn decided to contribute to the hockey instead of the hostilities, pushing through the Preds’ defense for another alarming sequence. Saros held on, though, and the Predators were able to get the puck back out again.

The final few minutes of the period were ugly, grinding hockey, with both teams struggling, and the only pretty play Jamie Oleksiak’s tying goal. He managed the play Ekholm had tried at the end of the last period, going end to end and pushing through the Preds’ entire defense to put the puck past Saros.

On that embarrassing note, the period ended, with the game tied 2-2 and much more of a hockey game—instead of a bumper-cars evening out—than the first.

The stakes, again, were colossal; this easily could be the game that decides which of these teams makes the playoffs, and with the score tied heading into the period there was almost a sudden-death feeling as play resumed.

Robertson almost gave the Stars an early lead, but Saros was able to make the stop. The fourth line had some hits; both teams had some shots, including one that went off of Saros’s helmet. Eventually, the Stars got settled in in the Predators’ end, an incredibly long shift that wore the Preds’ skaters and the fans’ nerves down but didn’t generate much itself. The Predators were able to get a change, but ultimately not to un-tilt the ice as the Stars continued pressing.

Whatever intermission adjustments Stars coach Rick Bowness made were good ones; while the Predators had looked surprisingly good—given their depleted roster—earlier in the game, they were struggling in the third. They couldn’t establish any kind of OZ possession, or clear out the DZ.

With 5:23 remaining in the third period, Josi was called for hooking against Gurianov and the Predators went back on the penalty kill. Mattias Ekholm had a huge clear while Saros was out of position, and after a nerve-wracking several minutes the Predators were able not only to kill the penalty and then—eventually—clear the zone, but actually get a shot on goal of their own. It was their first of the period, with over seventeen minutes elapsed by that point.

The second line, of Järnkrok, Granlund, and Luke Kunin, almost managed to score with under two minutes left in regulation, but Khudobin made the save. The Preds’ third line then managed another push, and then another with a spectacular play by Josi and Arvidsson following up on the rebound. If they’d played like this all period, the game probably wouldn’t have headed to overtime—but it did.

The good news is, this hurts the Chicago Blackhawks. Whichever team wins, both of them getting one point out of this game is bad news for the third team still in this race.

The Stars got possession early, held the puck long enough for the Preds to make a line change, and then iced it on a failed pass. The Stars got out no harm done, and escaped again as Benn wiped out with the puck in the Preds’ end and the Preds got a 3-on-2. Arvidsson had a chance there, and Grimaldi a moment later, but no luck. Then the Predators also iced the puck, also on a failed pass, with Ryan Ellis stuck out on the ice after a two-minute shift. The puck finally went out of play when Ellis blocked a shot by Miro Heiskanen, and the Preds were able to complete a shift change.

Hynes called a time-out at that stoppage, giving Ellis a little more time to recover as well as time to strategize. Both teams sent two defenders—Josi, Ekholm, Heiskanen, and Klingberg—and one forward out after the time-out, which did not in any way seem to impact the ensuing play. Arvidsson got one final shot on goal as the final buzzer sounded, but once again no joy.

Ryan Johansen scored the only goal of the shootout.

It wasn’t the win the Preds most needed—that would have been a regulation win, or even an overtime win—but if they hadn’t managed it it would still have been the loss they could have tolerated best (getting a point and not giving Dallas an overtime win), and two points in the playoff race are always better than one or none. They face the Tampa Bay Lightning again on Tuesday.

Three Stars (of the game, not of Dallas):

  1. Juuse Saros — kept a team that was struggling offensively in it the whole time. Some of his saves were spectacular.
  2. Yakov Trenin — big goal, to give the Preds the lead for a while and eventually get them to overtime. Lots of big hits too, which energized the crowd. The fans have struggled with enthusiasm lately; it was good to hear them tonight.
  3. Ryan Johansen — shootout goal.

Three Thoughts:

  1. Jérémy Davies hasn’t really impressed me yet, but he hasn’t been awful and he is still pretty new to the NHL. It’s going to be hard to objectively evaluate Davies for some time: he was the piece of value that came back in the P.K. Subban trade, along with Steven Santini’s contract; good defense in the NHL is notoriously hard to define; Preds fans are used to a Norris-worthy top four.
  2. Top-line Rocco Grimaldi isn’t working for me, and it also isn’t really working for the Preds. There’s a risk of rendering the second line ineffective if they take Järnkrok off of it, but he had several impressive moments both at even strength and shorthanded this game, and he’s defensively-responsible enough that it probably wouldn’t hurt Johansen and Arvidsson to have him join them. On the other hand, is that the best choice for Järnkrok? He and Granlund feel like they’ve been playing well together.
  3. I really like this fourth line, all in all. Tanner Jeannot can play at this level, unlike Michael McCarron; Colton Sissons and Yakov Trenin continue to make up a good combination. Mathieu Olivier was a really pleasant surprise for me, but it’s good to see that while he’s out the Predators are still able to find some players who have that same combination of physicality and actual NHL-hockey-playing ability.