Nashville Predators 5, Minnesota Wild 2: Top forwards produce but Tolvanen hurt

This was the game the Preds needed to execute.

The Nashville Predators shuffled up their roster in the wake of last night’s loss to the Winnipeg Jets, icing Mark Borowiecki and Matt Benning on the third d-pair and rearranging the forward lines to put Filip Forsberg and Eeli Tolvanen with the ever-reliable Mikael Granlund—and Nick Cousins, Philip Tomasino, and Tommy Novak together at 5v5 as well as 5v4.

The question on everyone’s minds: would it be enough against the Minnesota Wild?

Connor Ingram got the start for the Predators—and his first career NHL start—as Juuse Saros got his first night off of the season, and three minutes in the newly-assembled Novak line started off with some great chances that drew a penalty. Roman Josi in the low slot tipped a shot in for the first goal of the game.

Just moments after that, Tolvanen got taken hard into the boards by Wild captain Jared Spurgeon. The hit was ugly, with Tolvanen’s head getting caught between Spurgeon’s body and the boards, and Tolvanen stayed down on the ice for a while before being accompanied off and down the tunnel by the trainer. He did not return to the game. The refs apparently called it on (lack of) malicious intent, giving Spurgeon a minor—which was still met with furious booing from the crowd—but the Preds capitalized on the power play anyway, with Ryan Johansen scoring almost immediately.

Then Matt Duchene decided to pacify the Wild fans by helping to even up the penalty calls, taking a blatant slashing penalty, and the Wild’s power play got a chance of their own, but the Preds’ penalty kill was successful and the Preds went right back on the attack, with both Novak’s line and the Herd line getting some great chances. It was Johansen who scored next, though, getting his second of the game and his first at even strength, finishing off a great passing sequence that moved the puck all the way up the ice and making it 3-0 Preds.

The Wild responded by taking another penalty, to further outrage from their fans. This time, however, the penalty kill was successful, with Wild goalie Kaapo Kahkonen making some key saves on the plays the defenders weren’t able to break up. The Wild got a few chances of their own, with some big saves by Ingram and alert defensive play from the Preds skaters, before taking yet another penalty with just minutes remaining. Again the Wild’s penalty kill was alert, mostly keeping the Preds out of the zone, and the period ended without further score by either team.

Ryan Hartman drew a penalty early in the second, and the Wild’s power play went back to work, looking sharper after the intermission (and with penalty-killing stalwart Mikael Granlund the one in the box). Ingram made a key last-second save with the puck bouncing along the goal line, which was more excitement than I personally wanted, and the Preds had a solid shorthanded chance of their own before the penalty expired.

The Preds managed to escape a few more scrambles in their own end, but then Nick Bjugstad took the puck from deep in the Wild’s defensive zone and put it past Ingram with a perfectly-placed shot, ending Ingram’s shutout at 3-1. Moments later, several great chances for the Preds’ top line finally resulted in Forsberg tipping a Josi bomb for a 4-1 lead (the goal was initially credited to Josi). Marcus Foligno went on a breakaway off the following faceoff, but Ingram calmly made the save to hold the Preds’ just-restored three-goal lead.

An extended Wild possession in the Preds’ offensive zone came to an end when Fiala collided with Ingram, knocking Ingram’s helmet off, while crashing the net. The Xcel Energy Center crowd started a loud “ref you suck” chant as the Preds’ power play set to work. Although the power play expired without the Preds being able to convert, Tanner Jeannot batted a puck out of the air and past Kahkonen to make it 5-1 Preds.

With 1.5 seconds left in the period, though, the Wild narrowed the deficit again after the third defense pairing turned the puck over deep in the Preds’ zone and Nico Sturm able to capitalize. With each team scoring twice in the period, we headed to intermission 5-2 Preds.

Unsurprisingly, the Wild came out strong and aggressive to start the third, but they didn’t have it all their own way.

The Predators found their way to the offensive zone a few times, but with 15:23 to go in the period Tomasino was called for high-sticking and the Wild’s dangerous-looking power play got another chance, and was thwarted again Just as Tomasino got back out of the box, Hartman took a beautifully-timed dive to send Cousins to the box instead, and the Wild went back on the power play. It was one of those plays that, while cheating, took a ton of skill; I have to admire it, though if the Preds hadn’t managed to kill the penalty off I might have admired it much less.

With less than half the period remaining, the Wild amped up their attack further. The Predators managed some spurts of offense, but the bulk of the pressure came from the home team. With just under six minutes to go, Wild head coach Dean Evason pulled Kahkonen—a smart, aggressive play instead of the usual over-cautious NHL coach’s move.

Evason left Kahkonen on the bench for a neutral-zone faceoff after an icing call, an even bolder move, but Johansen’s stick broke on the faceoff and the Preds weren’t able to capitalize. With just under three minutes left in regulation, Colton Sissons was called for high-sticking—but halfway through the penalty, Mats Zuccarello took an interference penalty of his own, giving the Preds a much-needed break from the waves of pressure and forcing Evason to yield.

The last good chance of the period went to the Preds, with Josi looking to add to his four-point total, but the final score remained 5-2 Predators, as the Wild took their first loss of the season.

OTF’s Three Stars of the Game:

  1. Connor Ingram — what a NHL debut.
  2. Ryan Johansen — badly needed to make it onto the scoresheet, and hopefully gets a much-needed confidence boost.
  3. Roman Josi — spectacular game from the Preds’ best player.

Three Thoughts:

  1. The Preds’ highest-paid forwards finally showed up on the scoresheet and on the ice tonight. Not getting production from their best forwards has been the Preds’ most salient weakness for the last few years; I’m not going to say that’s cured after one game, but this is the kind of game we’ve all wanted to see this season.
  2. The whole roster responded better than I expected, especially in the second half of a back-to-back (admittedly, it probably helped that the Wild were in the same boat). The arena was openly hostile, and Tolvanen’s injury happened early enough that it threw any plans off. Still, the offense was noticeable in a good way, while the defense was by and large not noticeable in a bad way. The Preds did a reasonable job of getting to the front of the net and keeping the Wild from doing the same. That’s what you want to see.
  3. Losing Eeli Tolvanen, however, is going to be rough. The rest of the team rallied well tonight, and hopefully Tolvanen makes a complete recovery quickly—for his sake, not just the team’s—but this was not ideal.
  4. Not about this game specifically, but it’s so strange to me how referees’ game management is universally accepted but Tim Peel got fired for talking about it on a hot mic. When we got back from the first intermission and Granlund took that penalty, Chris Mason and Willy Daunic had an extended chat about how of course referees were looking for an opportunity to even out the calls if they got an excuse. It’s true; everyone knows it. Play-by-play commentators can talk about it. But referees have to pretend it’s coincidence, instead of working toward calling every play as if it’s the first shift of the game.