The Nashville Predators entered an afternoon tilt with the Detroit Red Wings at the Joe needing one point to clinch a playoff spot. That point was important, but the real issue was holding off the Red Wings to remain in 5th in the Western Conference.
The Red Wings opened the contest with their typical strong play, and Nashville netminder Pekka Rinne was called upon to make some big saves early to keep the Wings off the board. That would change at 18:15 of the first as the Wings tallied on a power play marker. With Francis Buillon in the box for interference, Detroit D-man Brian Rafalski went to the net and was able to get the puck past Rinne on a sharp angle shot to give the home team a 1-0 lead.
The second period was more of the same between the two teams, as both defenses thwarted offensive chances. The Predators, however, started to assert themselves in the offensive zone and began to put pressure on the Wings defense.That pressure paid off for the Predators as Shea Weber buried a blast from the blueline with traffic in front of Jimmy Howard at 1:36 of the period.
The Predators kept forcing the puck deep and pressuring the Detroit defense. Marty Erat was able to get the puck past Howard at 5:01 and give the Predators their first advantage of the game.
The Predators cycled the puck well in this game and generated some solid offensive chances against a good defensive team. The offense played with confidence today and forced Howard to make some good saves.
This is Detroit, and one knew that they were going to keep pushing and bring the pressure. That effort paid off at 16:01 of the period as Nick Lidstrom took a nice pass from Tomas Holmstrom from behind the net and beat Rinne for the tying goal.
It would have been easy for the Predators to wilt under the pressure that Detroit was bringing. The home crowd was rocking and everyone on both benches knew that the Wings would be pressing.
The crowd was quieted as Dustin Boyd battled for a puck behind the Detroit net and found J.P. Dumont alone inside the face off circle to the left of the net. Dumont fired the puck far side post to give the Predators a 3-2 lead that they would carry into the intermission.
The third period was a back and forth affair, as each team generated chances and each goaltender shut the door. The Predators had a glorious chance to extend the lead to two as Dustin Boyd undressed Nick Lidstrom inside the Detroit blue line and skated in on Howard. Boyd got Howard to open up and slid the puck five hole, only to have it hit the post and dribble back to Howard in the blue paint.
With Howard pulled for the extra attacker, the Wings tied the game with only :37 seconds left as Pavel Datsyuk beat Rinne glove side. Neither team could score in the remainder of the third, and it was off to overtime.
The one point that the Predators earned allowed them to clinch a playoff spot, but the Predators wanted the second point to stay ahead of Detroit in the standings and position themselves for the playoffs.
It would have been easy to become deflated after giving up the lead late in the game. It would have been easy for the team to hang their heads and feel sorry for themselves. That, however, would not have been Predator hockey.
The Predators controlled the face off in overtime and Joel Ward entered the zone. He got the puck to Ryan Suter, who was driving the net. Suter wristed the puck to the far side over the shoulder of Howard and found the twine. Game over. 16 seconds in, and the Predators had taken the all important second point.
The game was a test of wills. Who would yield first? Who would make the critical mistake? In times past, it would have been the Predators, as the Joe has been a house of horrors for the Predators.
This team has character. This team battles. This team has grit and heart. And it was on display in the game today. There were deflating moments, but the Predators bounced back time and again. There was no quit in the Predators.
Since the Olympic break, the Predators are 13-5-1, the best record in the NHL. They have picked a good time to play their best hockey of the season. That record is testimony to the caliber of this team. In a critical time, the Predators have elevated their play to a new level.
The Predators now have two games remaining and the opportunity to get to 100 points. They are in the playoffs, but now we are playing for seeding. The points are still precious.
The Predators will have an opportunity to rest and get on the ice for some much needed practice. This is the time to work on aspects of the game that need improvement and to get players healthy.
It's also time to savor a playoff clinching win against a good team.