Nashville Predators 1, Buffalo Sabres 4: Lack of intensity and execution dooms Predators’ win streak

To paraphrase Admiral Ackbar, “It’s a trap [game].”

After a big Central Division home win on Tuesday night, the Nashville Predators took the ice again at Bridgestone Arena tonight to face off against the Buffalo Sabres. Looking at each team’s records, the game appeared at first glance to be an easy win for the Nashville Predators, who entered the game 24-11-2 and riding a five-game win streak. After a hot start in October, the Buffalo Sabres have struggled to piece together wins, coming to Nashville with their disappointing 10-19-6 record. However, many of those 19 losses were close, and the Sabres brought plenty of talent to Nashville.

The timing of this game was not opportune for Buffalo, who lost both go their current goaltenders in Tuesday’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning when Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen left the game with a lower body injury and backup goalie Malcolm Subban suffered an upper-body injury. Although Subban finished the game, he is listed as month to month, and the Sabres called up goalie Aaron Dell from the AHL for tonight.

The Predators were also down key pieces as forwards Filip Forsberg and Yakov Trenin remained sidelined in COVID protocol and defender Mark Borowiecki was out with a lower body injury. Philip Myers stepped into the lineup for Boro and Coach John Hynes slotted Matt Luff, Cole Smith, and Michael McCarron in on the forward lines. Recently named All Star Juuse Saros took his place in net for Nashville. Would the Predators suffer from emotional letdown after the Colorado overtime win or continue their win streak over a sneaky Buffalo team?

Period One

It took the Predators several shifts to get their feet underneath them as they struggled with turnovers exiting the defensive zone and surviving an offensive push by Buffalo. The Sabres pressured early, and the Predators floundered to find their game. A flutter in front of the resulted in Matt Benning accidentally tapping the puck past Juuse Saros, giving the Sabres the early lead at 5:30 and Mark Jankowski credit for the score.

The goal seemed to shake the Predators up, but they slowly began to exert offensive pressure on Dell in net. Despite the wake-up-call opportunity, Nashville still wasn’t passing crisply or clearing the zone cleanly, and they seemed to play just a beat slower than the speed and intensity that has brought them so much success this season.

Buffalo kept up their pressure, threatening with several high danger chances on turnovers, but Juuse Saros made key saves to keep the game 1-0. The Predators finally caught a break as Mattias Ekholm was tripped by Jeff Skinner and Nashville headed on the power play.

Buffalo stayed persistent on the penalty kill. Nashville was challenged on every zone entry and possession, and Buffalo continued to clear the puck out of the offensive zone. The two minutes expired with no real threat from the Predators.

The period wound down with little fire from Nashville, and the team headed into the locker room bracing for John Hynes’s intermission message.

Period Two

Clearly Hynes had some ideas on what the team needed to do differently in the second period because the team came out immediately with better energy.  Jeff Skinner earned a hooking penalty, and with the delayed penalty and an extra attacker on, Colton Sissons found the back of the net. Unfortunately, the play was offside, and so the Predators took the ice on the power play.

Nashville set up on the power play, but Dell smothered a point shot from Roman Josi. The second unit had a shot attempt but neither unit could convert on the man advantage.

The cancelled goal took a bit of wind out of the Predators’ sails, but a huge check by Tanner Jeannot seemed to pick up the team’s intensity briefly. Nashville needed to fan that spark into an offensive flame, but the team couldn’t seem to get in sync through the first half of the period.

An attempt to play more physical resulted in a Nashville penalty. Matt Benning headed to the box at 9:44 for interference, and the Predators prepared to kill the two-minute penalty. Buffalo had several good chances, but Nashville’s strong penalty kill kept the score 1-0.

Nashville quickly got their own chance with a man advantage. Cody Eakin stepped into the penalty box at 12:27, and Matt Duchene continued his power-play-goal–winning ways by tapping in the errant puck at 13:12 to tie the game 1-1.

Duchene’s power-play goal shook off some more of the mental and physical rust and dust for the Predators for a stretch. Their game pace picked up until the mojo was interrupted by a high stick call against Colton Sissons at 16:42. Jeff Skinner scooped a rebound into the net, giving the Sabres the lead once again on the power play.

A penalty was called against Buffalo goaltender Dell as he left the goalie crease to gather a puck and interfered with Eeli Tolvanen against the boards. The Predators had :24 remaining in the period with a man advantage. Again Matt Duchene threatened, but the period expired with power-play time carrying over to the critical third.

Period Three

Nashville opened the final period with the remainder of the power play, but the man advantage expired without the Predators getting a shot on goal. Small errors seemed to interrupt any brief momentum Nashville tried to gain, and at 3:47 Michael McCarron was called for a trip, giving Buffalo another power play.

The Sabres threatened with the man advantage right away, and Juuse Saros and Colton SIssons prevented what looked like a sure third goal for Buffalo. Tanner Jeannot pestered and pressured and passed the remainder of the two minutes to kill off the penalty.

The mishaps in Smashville continued as Phil Myers and Roman Josi got tied up in the neutral zone and Jeff Skinner snagged the puck, skated past the tangled Preds, and scored the third goal for Buffalo at 7:59.

Nashville continued to fumble their way through the period. In an attempt to get back in the game Tanner Jeannot carried the puck to the net, but ran into Dell at 12:02 and earned himself a penalty. Fortunately, the Predators’ penalty kill held, and the Predators escaped the two minutes this time.

With less than three minutes to go, the Predators went empty net and at 18:46 Vinnie Hinostroza put the nail in the coffin with an empty-net goal.

Three Things:

  1. “Trap game” is a real thing. As challenging as it is to keep skills and physical health at peak levels, it is also hard to keep mental sharpness and intensity at winning levels, especially after a draining battle earlier in the week against Colorado. That’s no excuse for the performance tonight, but it is a factor.
  2. Big stars had small games. This was perhaps one of the worst performances from Roman Josi we’ve seen so far this season. While everyone has an “off” game sometimes - and almost all of Nashville’s roster had an off night  -  it is a shame Josi’s came tonight when voting for the All Star game was all the talk of the pre-game.
  3. Shake it off, wash that lucky jersey, change your lucky socks, and let’s get ready for Boston. There isn’t a player on the roster who doesn’t know what a disaster tonight’s game was from an execution and intensity standpoint. Sometimes there are games like that and all you can do is move on. It’s not ideal to drop two critical points in a tight Central Division race just when the Preds was gaining some credence across the league, but the team knows instinctively what went wrong and what needs to be different to face an even tougher Boston Bruins team on Saturday.