Nashville Predators 4, Dallas Stars 3 (SO): Top line activates, gives Preds win

The Predators eventually won a weird one tonight.

The Nashville Predators concluded their long, long road trip with a swing west tonight, taking on the Dallas Stars while still shorthanded. Pekka Rinne was back in the starter’s crease after two games off, while Mikael Granlund was out day-to-day.

Fortunately for us all, the Preds started this game off much more evenly than they did last  night’s game against the Florida Panthers. While they didn’t look great, they looked reasonably competent, got some time in the offensive zone, and didn’t have me wondering about relegation. The Stars have been struggling with some injury issues of their own.

Early in the period, Stars goalie Anton Khudobin struggled with an Erik Haula shot that looked like it might have hit him in the mask, but the puck stayed out. A few minutes after that, Khudobin almost put the puck in his own net. In spite of that, though, first blood went to the Stars as Rinne misread a play and Rhett Gardner scored his (sigh) first NHL goal, around halfway through the first. Invigorated by that goal, and helped on by some Preds turnovers, the Stars pressed the attack. Moments later, a long shift with the top line and top pairing hemmed into the d-zone resulted in the Stars’ second goal, this one redirected into the net by Radek Faksa.

Just after that, though, the Stars were whistled for delay of game and the Predators got a chance on the power play, and Ryan Johansen promptly tipped a Mattias Ekholm slapshot to bring the Preds within one. Before the Predators could press the momentum themselves, though, Rem Pitlick took a hooking penalty over 200 feet away from his own net. Colton Sissons and Calle Järnkrok put in some good work shorthanded, but the penalty expired with neither team converting.

After that, though, it was almost all Stars again until the end of the period. Khudobin, who has started both halves of the Stars’ back-to-back, made a really questionable puck-handling decision that led to a giveaway while he was behind the net. The Stars were able to bail out their goaltender, but iced the puck, leading to one more frustrating shift in which the Predators continued to be unable to get shots on net.

The teams headed to intermission with the score still 2-1 Stars, and the big question was: shots. Khudobin had been visibly struggling and is certainly dealing with some fatigue. He’d made several questionable plays and looked uncomfortable or even literally off-balance on several of the saves he made. This would be a great time for Hynes to work with the team on ways to capitalize, instead of getting doubled up in shots and almost doubled up in shots on goal.

As the second period started, the Predators did manage to spend some more time in the offensive zone—even getting the Stars to ice the puck twice—but the Stars continued sound defensive play to make Khudobin’s job easier. Look, if Hynes isn’t going to coach the Preds through the Stars’ defense can he at least encourage them to copy it themselves? Rinne and Saros must wish they could get this kind of consideration from their teammates.

Jérémy Davies had a good defensive play in the first half of the second period, followed shortly after by a nice offensive play. The period as a whole had been unimpressive up to that point, which made one of the Preds’ rookies doing something good a pleasant surprise. After that, the Predators actually managed to get a sequence of chances in the offensive zone, forcing Khudobin to make multiple saves.

Then, of course, Rinne had to make another big save of his own. He did, keeping the score within one, and things got a little messy for a while with end-to-end play and no real strategy. A Nick Cousins shot on goal led to another one of Khudobin’s bobbling saves, but luck was with the Stars.

This general chaos ended as halfway through the period Filip Forsberg drew a penalty with one of his incredible passes to himself, sending Miro Heiskanen to the box and putting the Preds back on the power play. The power play was ineffective, and almost gave up a huge shorthanded chance—I think the Stars may have been too tired to risk it.

As Heiskanen emerged from the penalty box, the back-and-forth play resumed, and the Stars eventually added a third goal thanks to a double deflection. Credit went to Ty Dellandrea. Just after that, Pitlick took his second penalty of the night, for interference on a harmless (but against-the-rules) defensive play, and the Stars went back on the power play. Fortunately, the Preds’ penalty killers were able to get the job done again.

With minutes left in the period, Forsberg converted on a Johansen pass after what I thought was going to be another missed opportunity to take advantage of Khudobin’s shaky play. The goal was reviewed for a kicking motion, but it was determined that there had not been one; the goal stood, bringing the Predators within one goal again with two minutes left in the second. The Stars made the end of the period exciting with another sequence of chances in the final seconds—Davies adding a giveaway against the good sequence earlier—but the Preds escaped.

Although the Stars were shorthanded in the third period, as Faksa was injured blocking a shot in the second, that didn’t change the shape of the game in any way. Khudobin came out of the blue paint entirely, dropped to all fours above the puck, spun away without ever having gotten it under control, and managed to get the whistle—just before Ryan Johansen put the totally unsecured puck into the Stars’ net. The goal did not count.

It would be remiss of me to fail to mention that Khudobin had made a few good saves this game, including another one halfway through the third on Colton Sissons. The Stars, not discouraged by either the Preds’ chance or the loss of Joel Kiviranta to injury as well, continued to press the attack.

Then, incredibly, Eeli Tolvanen got a shot on goal, and he scored. With less than six minutes remaining in regulation, the game was tied. Heiskanen almost gave the Stars the lead back, but Rinne was able to make the save. The Preds went back on the attack as well, neither team content to just play out the rest of regulation, but the Stars’ defense held up as well. With seconds left in regulation, Rinne snagged a shot from Andrew Cogliano out of the air, and the teams headed to overtime.

The Predators got off to a good start, but were unable to convert before a puck played with a high stick let the Stars get a shift change. John Klingberg was millimeters from winning it, with a shot that bounced off the inside of the post and back out, but luck was on the Preds’ side for once. Dante Fabbro spent what felt like most of the overtime out there in one shift without giving up a goal, which is impressive.

Overtime finished with no further scoring. The shootout went to extra rounds, where the Preds eventually won.

Three Stars of the Game:

  1. Eeli Tolvanen — three points, good play both with and without the puck, and he’s young enough that he’s not trade bait.
  2. Ryan Johansen — contributed on offense during the game, and contributed in the skills competition after the game.
  3. Calle Järnkrok — spared us from spending all night watching the skills competition.

Three Thoughts:

  1. Eeli Tolvanen and Jérémy Davies both made some good plays tonight, as well as Tolvanen’s actual goal. The Preds’ youth movement has pretty much been the only bright spot of late. Alexandre Carrier continues to exceed my expectations, though my expectations for him weren’t as high as they were for some of the other prospects.
  2. The news that some of the Preds’ injured players are getting closer to return is very good news not just for them but for those of us who’ve been watching the games without them.
  3. This was absolutely a game where John Hynes needed to develop and implement a decisive offensive strategy, and he did not. His “go do your thing in the offensive zone”, with this depleted team in particular, is not just a subpar strategy but one that helped cost the Predators a very winnable game. Khudobin was tired, off-balance, and making mistakes. The Preds were completely unable to crack the Stars’ defense. I’ve stuck up for Hynes in the past and I’ll probably do it again—I certainly don’t think he’s entirely to blame for this season—but this game was really, really frustrating to watch.