The Nashville Predators haven't clinched a playoff spot yet, and the three remaining games on their schedule are important. The Predators played with a sense of urgency and knowledge of how important these games are as they jumped out to 5 goal lead en route to a 6-3 victory over the Atlanta Thrashers at the Bridgestone Arena.
Early in the contest, the Thrashers did a good job of clogging the neutral zone and stifling the Predators offensive flow. In fact, the Thrashers had a bit more jump than the Predators at the outset. The Predators are a team that continues to push, however, and they kept challenging the Thrashers defense, probing for an opportunity to get the puck in the net.
They would cash in on their efforts at 5:24 of the first period as Jordin Tootoo shot the puck and Atlanta netminder Chris Mason kicked the puck out with his pad to Matt Halischuk driving into the low slot. Halischuk slid a backhand shot five hole for the game's first tally.
The rest of the first period was a back and forth affair, with both mason and Pekka Rinne making solid saves to keep the score 1-0.
Jordin Tootoo would change that at 19:18 as he would gather in the rebound of a Marty Erat shot and fire the puck past Mason to make it 2-0 Predators. Tootoo would take advantage of Nik Antropov's failure to clear the puck that was lying in the blue paint after a save by Mason and would tap the puck into the net.
The Predators were energized by that goal and would keep the pressure on the Thrashers. Mike Fisher controlled the puck behind the net and found Sergei Kostitsyn driving to the front of the net. Kostitsyn sent a wrist shot toward Mason that got under his arm and inside the far post to make it 3-0 with just .8 left on the clock.
Every Predator fan remembers what happened the last time we had a 3 goal lead, don't you? Sit back and let the other team dictate the play and watch the lead slip away. The question on the home crowd's mind was would we see a replay?
The answer was an emphatic "no".
Jordin Tootoo tallied his second goal of the night to make it 4-0 Predators at 1:56 of the second period. Matt Halischuk sent the puck toward the net, where it was tipped by a Thrasher defender and off Tootoo's skate for the goal. The beauty of that play was that the Predators put the puck on the net with traffic going to the front and they were rewarded.
Simple hockey. Effective hockey.
Mason was pulled after allowing 4 goals on 16 shots and Ondrej Pavelec was brought in to face the onslaught.
Pavelec held the Predators off the board for the remainder of the second period. Rinne was equally effective, and at the end of 2 periods, it was 4-0 Predators.
Sergei Kostitsyn welcomed Pavelec to the party at 2:28 of the third period as he took a beautiful pass from Cody Franson from the point and tapped the puck into the open net to make it 5-0 Predators. Kostitsyn had worked himself open at the side of the net and the Atlanta defense lost track of him. Franson had his head up and the pass was cross ice and right on the tape. On the play, Pavelec had no chance as the defense left Kostitsyn alone in prime scoring position.
Shoot the puck and go to the net. Simple hockey. Effective hockey.
Atlanta finally solved Rinne at 3:06 of the third as Blake Wheeler beat Rinne high glove side with a beautiful shot into a very narrow space.
The Predators would answer at 6:18 of the period on the power play as Kostitsyn found Mike Fisher driving to the net behind the Thrasher defense and hit him with a pass on his tape. Fisher slammed the puck into the open net to make it 6-1 Predators.
The Thrashers would add 2 late goals as Blake Wheeler would score at 16:25. Rinne was screened by Patric Hornqvist and did not see the shot until the last minute. Nik Antropov would score at 17:10 to make the score 6-3. The Predators changed line matchups late in the game and had their 4th line out against the 2nd line of the Thrashers, which contributed to the final Atlanta goal.
When scoring 3 or more goals, the Predators are 40-4-2. When scoring first, the Preds are 29-5-8.
With the win, the Predators currently are 4th in the Western Conference with a record of 43-26-11, good for 97 points. With one point in their final two games, or with a Dallas loss, the Predators are assured of a playoff spot.
This game points out the way the Predators have to win games: shoot the puck and drive to the net. When they do this, they generate scoring opportunities and are effective.
It really is a simple game.
Two games left. Time to lock down a playoff spot. Keep playing the way you did tonight and it will be yours.
My three stars:
1. Jordin Tootoo
2. Sergei Kostitsyn
3. Patric Hornqvist
Honorable mention: Matt Halischuk