Nashville Predators 1, Dallas Stars 0 (OT): Saros perfect, Haula scores in brutal win

This was a nailbiter.

The Nashville Predators and Dallas Stars, fighting desperately for the fourth playoff spot in the Central Division, faced each other with only four and five games, respectively, left in the season for them after this one. For both teams, multiple models showed this game had the chance to mean more than a forty-point swing in their chances of making the playoffs: 20+% likelier to make with a regulation win, 20+% likelier to miss with a regulation loss. In short: a big deal.

Filip Forsberg and Alexandre Carrier, as well as Brad Richardson, all back from the IR, rejoined the lineup. Once again John Hynes opted to lead with the Herd Line. Juuse Saros started in goal for the Predators, while Anton Khudobin started for the Stars.

Despite being the biggest regular-season game the Predators have had in the last several years, it began like any other. The teams exchanged shifts and possession time, but nothing exceptional at first. Then, four minutes in, Jason Dickinson took exception to a Calle Järnkrok check on Miro Heiskanen, and seconds later as the play moved down ice Jamie Benn and Luke Kunin got into a bit of a discussion. The zebras broke both of these exchanges up before any penalties were assessed, but the mood was clearly set.

With 14:22 remaining in the first period, Khudobin took a chance on a poke check and was instead called for tripping Erik Haula. The Predators went to the power play with their full PP1 unit back for the first time in over a month, but alas had no better luck than last time. Still, the unit had several dangerous chances, and Khudobin had to work to keep the Preds off the board—an encouraging change. Jamie Benn started a good shorthanded chance with seconds left in the power play, but Juuse Saros looked sharp and Matt Duchene broke up the play.

The teams spent some time at even strength, tilted in the Stars’ favor, before Dallas settled in for an extended shift in the Preds’ zone and Carrier got called for interference against Joe Pavelski. The Predators had a shorthanded chance of their own before the Stars turned it back for a final flurry of their own.

After the power play came to an end, Roman Josi was slow to get up after a hit by Jason Robertson and immediately headed down the tunnel. The issue could have been almost anything—the two players got tangled together as Robertson took Josi down—but the obvious, immediate concern for everyone had to be the fact that Josi’s head banged against the ice as he landed.

The Stars continued to tilt the ice in their favor, and Saros made a few huge saves to end the period so that the score remained 0-0 as the teams left for first intermission.

Josi did not return for the second period. Erik Gudbranson started the period alongside Ryan Ellis. Having taken out the Preds’ captain and defending Norris champion, the Stars spent some time getting physical with Juuse Saros, without consequence from the referees.

With around five minutes elapsed in the second period, the Predators set up camp for an extended shift in the Stars’ zone that had Bridgestone roaring, but Khudobin stopped everything that came at him. Esa Lindell and Sami Vatanen were stuck out on the ice for three straight minutes before a play with a high stick got a whistle and they were able to change.

(Willy Daunic just called Robertson “the dangerous Jason Robertson,” which would be incredible if he’d meant it as a jab at Robertson’s tangling Josi up and dumping him to the ice earlier, but I don’t believe he did.)

An altercation broke out that had Gudbranson and Blake Comeau headed to the box for roughing and left Mattias Ekholm covered in blood as we went to commercial. When we got back, Roman Josi had returned from the dressing room, but less than a minute later Eeli Tolvanen went hard into the boards, feet-first, as Benn chased him down. Tolvanen tried to wait it out on the bench but ended up also going down the tunnel.

It had become difficult to imagine, with almost thirty minutes still left to be played in regulation—plus potentially up to five minutes of overtime—that the Stars’ strategy to make the playoffs wasn’t to injure as much of the Nashville Predators’ roster as they could, with the hopes either of winning this game (see: forty-point swing) or simply keeping the Predators from winning future games.

Tolvanen also returned, and the Predators rallied for another good look for the, ah, fourth line. Yakov Trenin had a fabulous chance from behind the net that just missed Tanner Jeannot; they’re such a fun, creative line. It would be great to see the top six more consistently getting some good looks at even strength as well, but for some reason Matt Duchene is playing with Richardson and Erik Haula, so here we are. That said, both of the top-six lines did finally get some chances as the period expired.

However, Khudobin, once again, stood strong, and the score remained tied as both teams headed into the third. It was, again, an absolutely huge period for both teams; the winner’s playoff chances would be significantly less improved by allowing their opponent a point.

Jamie Oleksiak shoved Kunin into his own goalie; Kunin and Khudobin were both down on the ice for a moment after the whistle before getting up. Khudobin remained in, and play resumed. The teams traded chances, including a heartstopping two-on-one by Benn and Roope Hintz that got stopped by Saros and cleared by Duchene.

The Predators had a fantastic flurry in the Stars’ zone with about twelve minutes left in regulation, making Khudobin make save after save, but again Khudobin was perfect. The crowd was on their feet for the first Smashville Standing O of the season by the end of the shift—spontaneous, loud, and joyous.

Whether it would inspire the team would have to be seen. With under ten minutes remaining in regulation, it was starting to feel like the Predators would never manage to get anything past Khudobin. Of course, Duchene crashing the net and making a cross-slot pass to Gudbranson, who missed it, does go some way toward explaining some of the struggle the Preds have been having; still, even without the Preds’ help, the Stars have been great defensively and in goal.

With 4:30 remaining in regulation, Robertson was called for cross-checking and Gudbranson for embellishment. Getting both of these players off the ice had the potential to be good for the Preds, but getting cocky would definitely be bad. As it happened, though, neither team scored during the 4v4, and the teams returned to even strength with 2:30 to go in regulation.

The game headed to overtime: a mere 20+-point swing, now, with both teams still well in the hunt. Josi drew a hooking penalty early and Robertson headed back to the box. Unfortunately, Anton Khudobin remained perfect. As the penalty expired, Oleksiak checked Josi into the boards from behind; I’m really hoping it was a harmless hit.

Just after that, Mattias Ekholm circled around behind the net and made a pass out in front, and Erik Haula picked the puck up in the blue ice and put it past Khudobin for the gamewinner.

Preds win.

Three Stars (Not Those Ones) of the Game:

  1. Juuse Saros — He stopped everything that came at him, including several five-bell saves. I’d bet on this Saros against a killer asteroid, though maybe not against the Carolina Hurricanes. Here’s hoping we get the chance to find out (about the Hurricanes, not the asteroid).
  2. Matt Duchene — made several great plays, an unfair number of them thwarted by his own teammates.
  3. Erik Haula — YOU KNOW WHY.
  4. Honorable mention to the fourth line, which played a great game tonight.

Three Thoughts:

  1. I am really hoping that this isn’t going to be like the March 7th game where Josi finished the game and then missed some time with what was never officially confirmed to be a concussion. I’m hoping he’s genuinely well, and that neither the Robertson nor the Oleksiak hit did any damage (especially not to his brain); if he’s not, the Preds need to prioritize his health over the season.
  2. The Stars are just a really bad matchup, style-wise, for the Preds; the fact that Saros has been able to keep them in so many of these games is incredibly impressive. I won’t start complaining about the offense just yet, and the power play’s improved look was promising, but I’d really like to see them put up some actual goals on the Columbus Blue Jackets this coming week. Still, they played a lot better this game than they did against Florida.
  3. These lineup decisions, man. Erik Gudbranson was put in a position to play heavy minutes tonight because he was in the lineup when Josi got hurt. Brad Richardson was playing for...uh...reasons? (I know Nick Cousins is “out with non-COVID illness”, but they have other forwards.) The fact that it worked out for the Preds tonight doesn’t mean it always will, and I’d like to see them making higher-ceiling choices.