The Predators faced another opponent that was just above them in the standings, another big game, this time against the Colorado Avalanche. For a team that has struggled recently, every game takes on a new significance. Every game represents two critical points. And every game is going to be a battle. The team that would capture the victory would be the team that could withstand the best the opponent could throw at them and respond in kind. Tonight, that team was the Nashville Predators as they prevailed over the Avalanche by a score of 5-3.
You knew this would be a game of punch and counter punch. The first punch was thrown by the Avalanche as they scored off a two on one break. Cody McLeod staked the Avalanche to a 1-0 lead as he buried a a shot past goaltender Pekka Rinne, who had no chance on the shot. 1-0 at the end of the first period, and although the Predators had generated some quality chances, they found themselves in the hole going in to the second period.
This was the time to buckle down and respond. Gut check time in a game the Predators couldn't afford to lose. And respond the Predators did.
Jason Arnott fired a puck at the net, which was redirected off Patric Hornqvist to tie the game at one on the Predators power play. Arnott unleashed a blast from the point that careened off Hornqvist, who was camped in his familiar spot at the top of the crease. Tied at one, the Predators seemed to be re-energized and took control of the second period.
One minute later, the Predators controlled the puck in the Avalanche zone. Jerred Smithson got control of the puck after a scrum on the boards and fired a puck at Avalanche net minder Craig Anderson, who made the initial stop. However, Joel Ward followed the shot and was able to flip the puck past Anderson, and the Predators had a 2-1 lead.
Six minutes later, the Avalanche tied the game on a power play as Matt Duchene was alone in the low slot and fired a puck past Rinne. Punch, counter punch. The game in the balance. Who would respond and take control of the game?
This is the point of the game where the hockey gods have frowned upon the Predators. A breakdown here, a mishandled puck there, and the Preds would find themselves in a hole from which they could not emerge. This time would be different. This time, the Predators would exert their will and take control of the game.
Just :23 seconds later, Jason Arnott would tally his own goal to give the Predators a lead they would not relinquish. Arnott fired a puck at the net with Hornqvist screening Anderson, and the puck found the back of the net. Punch answered by an effective counter punch. Momentum back to the Predators.
With :41 seconds remaining in the period, the Predators controlled the puck in the Avalanche zone. Arnott got control of the puck and rifled a shot at the net. Hornqvist once again was paying the price to establish position ifn front of the net and was able to re-direct the shot past Anderson for a 4-2 Predators lead. Not only a punch, but a punch in the mouth by the Predators as they took a two goal lead into the locker room at the second intermission.
You knew the Avalanche would come out strong in the third period. They would punch the Predators and try to gain the momentum. They would try to capture the two points that both teams desperately needed. Who would respond?
The Predators answered that question at 10:31 of the third as Steve Sullivan found the top corner over the shoulder of Anderson with a beautiful shot from just inside the face off circle. It's been a long time since Sully found the back of the net, and it was good to see him get the tally. Welcome back to the score sheet, Steve. We have missed you, and we are going to need you in this critical stretch run.
Justin Mercier cut the lead to two, 5-3, at the 18:42 mark of the game, but the Avalanche never mounted a serious scoring threat after that, and the Predators had answered the bell with a decisive 5-3 win.
This is the type of game that the Predators have lost recently. A game where they have not been able to answer the bell and overcome the punches that an opponent has thrown at them. Tonight, it seemed that no matter what the Avalanche threw at the pres, they would answer. They took the punches that the Avalanche threw, and answered with their own effective response. They showed the heart and grit that had been missing in previous games.
Kudos to the entire squad for not relenting, for not succumbing to the punches the Avalanche threw. It would have been easy to say "Here we go again". Tonight, this team did not yield. They refused to lose this game, an important game that gives them not only two precious points, but the confidence that they can weather adversity, they can endure the best that a good team can throw at them and come out victorious.
This team demonstrated heart and a will to win. The hockey gods smile on those that refuse to yield. Tonight, the Predators refused to yield, and the gods smiled.
Big players have to step up in big games. All the games are big now, and it was good to see players like Arnott step up. The captain had a goal and four assists. Steve Sullivan got an important goal. Joel Ward not only scored, but was strong on the puck all night. And Patric Hornqvist was his usual annoying and strong presence in front of the net. How many would have thought that Hornqvist would lead the team in goals with 23 at this point of the season? He has done this by being willing to pay the price in front of the net in the hard areas. He has taken the punches, and has responded. Punch me, and I will make you pay.
Two vital points. Good to have this game in the win column. The Preds take the season series from Colorado 3-1. More importantly, this team had re-discovered what it takes to win an critical game. They know that they can take a punch, get back up of the mat, and claim a victory.
There will be many more punches thrown, and many more opportunities to respond. There is a lot of hockey yet to be played, but the lesson has been learned. You can take the punch, boys. And when you play Predator hockey, you can withstand those punches and respond in kind. And you can win.