In the final game before the Olympic break, the Nashville Predators looked perilously close to getting blown out of the Igloo in the first period of their game with the Penguins. In fact, it looked as if the third period debacle against the New Jersey Devils on Friday night was being replayed on Sunday afternoon. As it was, the Predators were fortunate to get out of the period down 1-0.
Pittsburgh brought the attack from the opening face off, out-shooting the Predators 8-0 over the first six minutes of the period. Dan Ellis was called upon to make some big saves early to keep the Pens off the board. In fact, it appeared that the Predators were just content ot dump the puck out of the zone and play keep away from the potent scorers on the Penguins squad.
While not mounting any offense whatsoever, this tactic worked until 14:21 of the period when Ryan Jones was called for high sticking in a scrum behind the Pens net. Just :22 in and on the first shot of the power play, Sidney Crosby blasted a slapshot past Ellis for a 1-0 Pens lead. That score would stand for the remaider of the period.
The Predators were outshot 11-4 in the first and generated no serios offense. If not for the outstanding play of Dan Ellis, they could have easily faced a much larger deficit going in to the locker room.
I would certainly have loved to have been a fly on the wall in the locker room at the first intermission to hear what Head Coach had to say to his charges. I'm certain it was not fun to hear and most likely questioned the desire of the players, because a completely different team emerged from the locker room for the second period.
Evgeni Malkin and Dan Hamhuis were involved in a tussle at the end of the first period, and Malkin got an extra two minutes for the roughing call. The Predators availed themselves just :34 seconds into the period and the man advantage as Martin Erat whisteld a shot past Marc-Andre Fleury. Suddenly, the Predators had life, and more importantly seemed to believe they could play with the Penguins. The hitting for the Preds picked up and they had more jump.
At 2:09 of the second, Matt Cooke brought the home crowd to their feet with a goal off a shot by Jordan Staal. Staal was able to drive the net, and although Ellis made a great save, he could not control the rebound and Cooke was left alone to push the puck over the goal line.
Jordin Tootoo immediately stole the momentum back for the Predators as he fired a shot from a difficult angle that somehow got between Fleury and the post. In the span of 12 seconds, the building went from raucous to stunned as the partisan crowd realized that there was some serious fight left in the Predators.
There were times during the game where the Pens simply swarmed the offensive zone and the Predators looked to be hanging on for dear life. Ellis was called upon to make several huge saves, and he was equal to the task. Dan looked comfortable and in control and the team picked up on that and began to feed off the play of Ellis. He was steady in the face of the offensive pressure of the Pens, and it seemed to settle the team down as the game went along.
The one miscue of the game by Ellis gave the Pens a 3-2 lead. Brooks Orpik fired a low shot along the ice that Dan simply misplayed. The puck skipped off the inside of Dan's pads and found the back of the net at the 4:51 mark of the third. Once again, the crowd was in full throat and the momentum was back to the Penguins. Recent history would indicate that this was the time for the Predators to crumble under the pressure.
This time was different.
The Predators kept pressing the attack and would not back down from the Penguins. They finally broke through to tie the game at 12:17 of the period as Shea Weber sent a low scorching shot that beat a screened Fleury five hole. Once again the Predators had quieted the crowd and negated the home ice advantage through gritty play and hard work. This is Predator hockey. This is their formula for success.
The remainder of the period was scoreless, although each netminder was called upon to make some nice saves to maintain the tie.
The overtime period looked like a mirror image of the first period as the Penguins dominated the Predators, outshooting them 7-0. They were aided by a two minute holding penalty on Kevin Klein, and during the PP, Ellis made some big saves and the penalty killers did a great job to kill it off. The Preds were horrifically inept offensively during the overtime period, failing to even effectively get the puck in the zone.
Moving to the shootout, things looked grim for the Predators as the Penguins had not lost all season in the skills competition. Pittsburgh chose to shoot first, and Ellis stopped Kris Letang.
The first shooter for the Predators was young pup Cal O'Reilly. The coaching staff placed a lot of confidence in the rookie, and he proved that confidence was well placed as he beat Fleury five hole.
Next up for the Pens was the dangerous Sidney Crosby. With the crowd roaring at full volume, Crosby skated in on Ellis, but got close enough that Ellis was able to poke check the puck away from Crosby.
Martin Erat was the next shooter for the Predators, and with the game in the balance, beat Fleury with a nice backhand move. As improbable as it seemed after the first period, the Predators skated out of the Igloo with two points.
Five out of a possible eight points on this crucial road trip is huge for the Predators. They are in a dogfight for a playoff spot in the ultra competitive Western Conference, and every point is precious. This team could have folded in a tough environment against a quality foe, but they didn't. They responded. They reached down and did what it took to win a game they desperately needed.
With the opportunity to recharge over the next two weeks, the Predators have to come back ready to play. In March, they have 17 games in 30 days. Imperative for these guys is the necessity of coming back refreshed with a clear focus on amassing as many points as possible.
Today, the Predators showed that when they take to the ice and play Predator hockey, they can beat the best. After a brief break, there are lots of games coming up. Lots of games to play Predator hockey.