Predators Head Coach Barry Trotz notched his 400th victory in a 2-1 victory over the Atlanta Thrashers in Phillips Arena. The win was not a thing of beauty, but fortunately, they don't grade wins on style points. The only thing that matters for the Predators is another "W" and two more valuable points.
The Predators started the game strongly, skating well and putting immense pressure on the Thrashers with an aggressive forecheck. When the Thrashers entered the offensive zone, they were smothered by a ferocious Predator defense that limited their offensive chances. When Atlanta threatened, goaltender Dan Ellis was strong in net.
The Predators got on the board first at 4:48 of the first as Ryan Suter unleashed a shot from the blue line with Patric Hornqvist and Martin Erat screening Thrasher netminder Johan Hedberg. The shot got through cleanly, beating Hedberg to the glove side.
In the five games since the Olympic break, Patric Hornqvist has been held off the scoresheet, and one has to wonder if he is beginning to hit the wall in this, his first full season in the NHL. The aspect of Hornqvist game that has not changed, and one that is positive relative to his play, is that he continues to go strong to the net and create traffic in front of opposing goaltenders. Several of the goals that the Predators have scored in these past five games have been a direct result of Hornqvist "taking away the eyes" of the goalie. His physical presence provides a great distraction for opposing goaltenders and scoring opportunities for his teammates. This is his game, and he continues to play it well.
Late in the first, Colin Wilson was the beneficiary of a turnover deep in the Atlanta zone by Mark Popovich. His attempted clear hopped over his stick, and Wilson slapped the puck toward the net. Getting the puck under control, Wilson made a nifty backhand to forehand move and beat Hedberg high stick side. Wilson continues to play strong hockey and his game is maturing. Tonight, he was paired on the top line with Jason Arnott and Martin Erat and seemed to mesh well with the two veterans.
As strong as the first 20 minutes was for the Predators, the team that emerged from the locker room after the first period was not the team on the ice for the remaining two periods. At times, this team was downright ugly in its play. Nik Antropov cut the Predator lead to 2-1 just :19 seconds into the second period as he beat Dan Hamhuis to the front of the net and re-directed a shot past Ellis, who had no chance to make the save.
From that point on, the Thrashers seemed to have more jump than the Predators. The Thrashers applied more pressure in the offensive zone and kept the Predators back on their heels. As the game wore on, Predator fans had the sick feeling that one mistake could cost the team an opportunity for a critical win.
It appeared that Chris Thorburn had tied the game at two when he muscled the puck past Ellis in a goal mouth scramble. The goal was immediately waived off as Thorburn was ruled to have interfered with Ellis. For once, the Predators caught a break.
Even with the disallowed score, Atlanta kept up the pressure on the Predators. When the Predators mounted offensive pressure and generated good scoring chances, they could not get another puck past Hedberg. As the game wore on, his play picked up and he was solid in net. He stopped Marty Erat on a shorthanded breakaway to keep the score at 2-1 and Atlanta in the game, and made several critical saves to keep it a one goal game.
As good as Hedberg was, Ellis was spectacular. Much like the Rangers game before the Olympic break, Ellis was strong in net and preserved the victory for the Predators with some excellent saves. It remains to be seen if Coach Trotz will continue to rotate goalies with the Preds playing on Thursday night in San Jose.
There is no doubt that this is a game that the Predators had to win. They secured the win in ugly fashion, but got the win nevertheless. For this road trip to be successful, however, the Predators are going to have to step up their play. It certainly does not get any easier for them as they venture into the Shark tank.
As Coach Trotz said in his pre-game remarks, the Predators are playing a 31 game season. If they play well, they will be in the playoffs. If not, they go home in April. This team cannot rely- should not rely- on other teams to help them out in this tight race. They have to take care of business.
They have to play Predator hockey.
You know what is before you, boys. You know what you have to do to win and to secure a playoff spot. The onus is on you. Your fate is in your hands.
Time to man up and play hockey. Time to grab the prize that is out there.