The first game of the NHL season always brings questions about a team, questions that are answered on the ice. For the Predators, this is a season of questions. Will the young forwards gel and be able to score. How will the young blue liners perform? Will this team have chemistry?
So many questions.
The Nashville Predators faced the Columbus Blue Jackets in Nationwide Arena to try to answer some of those questions.
Pekka Rinne, bouncing back from a touch of the flu, got the start for the Predators, while Steve Mason was in net for the BJ's. Both Rinne and Mason were looking at a lot of new faces in front of them,and for the Predators, a lot of those faces were awfully young. This was going to a baptism of fire for the new Predators.
After a scoreless first period that saw both teams generate some scoring chances, the Predators finally tallied on a power play opportunity (yes, you read that correctly!) as David Legwand fed the puck to Sergei Kostitsyn who walked in alone on Steve Mason. Mason was forced to focus solely on SK74, who at the last moment slipped a nice backhand pass to a pinching Ryan Suter, who buried the puck into the open net at 5:10 of the second period..
The BJ's would answer at 14:19 of the period as a Shot by Jeff Carter was not handled cleanly by Rinne and Vinny Prospal cleaned up the loose puck as he was crashing the net. As you can imagine, the tally set the Columbus crowd off into a frenzy.
It was going to be important for the Predators to turn the momentum back in their favor and take the crowd out of it. Someone would need to step up and answer for the Predators.
That answer would come just 1:37 later, and it would come from an unlikely but welcome source. Craig Smith notched his first NHL goal at 15:56 as Mason could not handle a shot from Shea Weber. Mason was sprawled in a snow angel thinking the puck was under him. The puck, however, was lying to the side of Mason, and Smith was flying around the net and able to knock in a backhand to give the Predators a 2-1 lead. That would be all the scoring for the remainder of the period.
A 2-1 lead is tenuous, and it was going to be important for the Predators to continue to apply pressure and attempt to extend the lead. The Predators would do just that as Matt Halischuk would for a Columbus turnover in their own zone. Cal O'Reilly flipped the puck to Halischuk who was driving the net. Halischuk lifted a backhand past Mason to make it 3-1 Predators just 39 seconds into the third period.
The Jackets made it a 1 goal game again at 10:19 of the third period as the Predators failed to get the puck through the neutral zone and the Jackets made them pay as Rick Nash scored on a wrap around against Rinne. Throughout this contest, the Predators looked spotty with their neutral zone play, which has normally been a strength of this team.
The Predators killed off a Craig Smith penalty when the BJ's had momentum. Rinne made a huge save on Rick Nash. Craig Smith rang one off the pipe. The action in the late stages of the third period was going end to end.
The Predators stepped up the pressure and peppered Mason with shots. The Jackets did the same to Rinne, and both goalies were up to the task.
With the Predators nursing the one goal lead, the Jackets pulled Mason in the final minute. It was a wild scramble in the Predators goal crease in the final 10 seconds, but the Predators were able to hold off the BJ's offensive push and escape with a 3-2 win.
This was an important win for this team. It introduced a lot of young guys to the pace and the venom that comes in a regular season game against a division rival. Tonight, the young guys, and a few of the older ones, saw that it is the little things like winning face offs and puck battles that can turn the tide of a contest.
I was thoroughly impressed with the play of Craig Smith. The kid is fearless, not afraid to shoot the puck, and has a nose for the net.
In my mind, the jury is still out on the defensive pairing of Jack Hillen and Teemu Laakso. At times, they looked tentative and lacking confidence.
The Predators are the youngest team in the NHL. With youth, there is excitement but there is also mistakes. As Predator fans, we are going to have to live with these facts for a while this season.
We as fans will not lack for edge of our seat excitement.
My three stars:
1. Matt Halischuk
2. Craig Smith
3. Pekka Rinne