Nashville Predators 2, Colorado Avalanche 6: Ugly loss after uglier game

Every Preds fan who watched this game finds this image of Ekholm more relatable than we’d like.

The Nashville Predators and Colorado Avalanche faced off in Denver tonight, with the Preds looking to build on a win and the Avs looking to erase a loss.

You could say both teams picked up where they left off in the third period last night: the Avalanche buried the Preds with a barrage of shots and high-danger chances, while the Preds let it happen. Mattias Ekholm, under pressure, took a penalty, and Mikko Rantanen made the Preds pay on the power play.

David Rittich, in net for the Preds, had to make a few big saves on big chances—including some turnovers, back to plague the Preds after Wednesday’s game against the Vegas Golden Knights. The team in front of Rittich didn’t get their first shot at goal of the game, let alone shot on goal, until almost halfway through the first period.

After that, though, the Preds finally started to push back, but the momentum they’d started to build was stifled when Eeli Tolvanen took a holding penalty while going for the puck deep in the offensive zone. The Avalanche got a really extended stretch of 6v5 play on the delayed penalty, which had nerves tightening in Nashville, before Matt Duchene finally managed to get possession.

The ensuing 5v4 went about as the lead-in foreshadowed, with the Avs’ power play putting on a clinic. Rittich and a post both came up huge for the Preds, but then we got to repeat the entire process as Colton Sissons was called for hooking and the Preds failed to touch up right after the penalty call. This time, the Avs scored almost immediately: Rantanen, again.

The first period mercifully came to a close not long after, with the Predators actually doing okay at 5v5 but completely unable to keep the game there. The second did not get off to such a good start, as the Avs hit a post seconds in and Rittich lost the puck in the ensuing scuffle. It took him a while to get up after the whistle, but he seemed all right and could easily just have been putting off the moment when he’d have to get back to the game (for which nobody could blame him).

Tommy Novak briefly got the Preds into the offensive zone, but then it was time for the Avs to return to the Preds’ end. Rittich, again, made a huge save on what looked like a sure goal by Landeskog. Luke Kunin got the Preds not just into the zone but onto the board, and for a moment it looked as if they had some life and Rittich was going to get some help.

A minute and a half later the Avs scored again to make it 3-1.

Nick Cousins got a great scoring chance right before taking a roughing penalty, though he did at least get the Avs’ leading scorer Nazem Kadri off the ice as Kadri was called for unsportsmanlike conduct on the same play (a penalty which here seems to be defined as “being Nazem Kadri”).

The 4v4 helped the Preds somewhat, as they were able to get some OZ time and some chances with the change in personnel. Once the teams returned to five a side, the Preds continued their exploration of terra incognita, the Avs’ defensive zone. Tolvanen and Ryan Johansen combined for some promising plays. Still, the Avalanche went back on the attack, and Dante Fabbro was pressured into committing yet another penalty for the Preds, putting the Avs right back on the power play.

The power play was derailed, though, as Landeskog skidded twenty-odd feet across the ice and slammed into Rittich, knocking goalie and net back into the boards. A general fracas ensued, ending after Landeskog attempted to fight an unwilling and still-gloved Ekholm. Ekholm, who left the ice with his face covered in blood from a gash across his forehead, received a two-minute penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct against Rantanen, while Landeskog was assessed an instigator penalty, a fighting major, and the accompanying misconduct.

It’s a by-the-book call of an instigator penalty (which includes “gloves off first; first punch thrown” among the possible criteria), but if that was the common definition then every fight would have an instigator penalty attached—whether it should or not depends on your stance on fighting in the NHL. I’ve much more usually seen instigator penalties assessed for what was obviously a mutual fight in response to a separate incident: vigilante justice, in other words.

From the footage we saw, Ekholm was initially tackled by two Avs players, then subsequently repeatedly punched by Landeskog without even attempting to get his gloves off. I get that “aggressor” is the kind of penalty that gets considered by DoPS when suspensions come up, and Gabriel Landeskog is a Team Sweden guy as well as the captain of the Colorado Avalanche, but that was an ugly play that wasn’t part of any NHL code. It wasn’t Ekholm who ran Avs goalie Jonas Johansson. I think an aggressor call (made against “the player who continues to throw punches in an attempt to inflict punishment on his opponent who is in a defenseless position or who is an unwilling combatant”) would have been defensible, and would have underscored how unusual that sequence was—and how little it benefits the game.

The overlapping minors expired seven seconds before the period did, giving the Preds 2:53 of major power play to start the third. The Avs had some great shorthanded chances early, with Rittich sharp again, keeping the puck moving back to his teammates when he could and making saves when he couldn’t. The crowd roared its approval as the Avalanche finished killing the penalty off, and the Preds returned to the struggle at 5v5.

Valeri Nichushkin scored off a great pass from Rantanen to put the Avs up 4-1 with more than half the third period still to go. With seven minutes remaining, the Avs’ Jayson Megna cleared the puck over the glass and the Preds got a power play, which they proceeded to spend chasing the puck around in their own end.

As the penalty expired, Megna took the puck into the Preds’ zone; the initial play was skillfully broken up by Dante Fabbro, but Rantanen collected the puck and completed his hat trick: 5-1 Avs.

Matt Duchene responded immediately, collecting first a pass from Mikael Granlund and then his own rebound to make it 5-2, but the goal was immediately placed under review by the league. After review, the call was confirmed—there had been some question about exactly how the puck crossed the goal line—but with under four minutes in the game, the Preds wouldn’t be able to make up even a three-goal deficit.

In case there was any doubt, Tyson Jost scored with 1:05 left in the game.

OTF’s Three Stars of the Game:

Well, if we must.

3. David Rittich — the results weren’t great, but the effort was there from puck drop, and he’s really the only player in gold I felt that about.

2. Philip Tomasino and Tommy Novak — some good chances and sparks of hope from the youth in a long, ugly, miserable game.

1. Eeli Tolvanen — the early penalty wasn’t good, but he and Johansen were fantastic defensively and offensively, with Tolvanen racking up the chances. He’s going to start scoring soon, and when he does it’s going to blow the roof off. And, like Tomasino and Novak—and Kunin, Carrier, Jeannot, and Fabbro—Tolvanen playing well is a reason to hope for the future.