NASHVILLE -- The Nashville Predators had looked uncharacteristically shaky in front of goaltender Pekka Rinne during the first two games of this Western Conference Semifinal series in Phoenix. On Wednesday night, they looked more like the team that racked up 104 points in the regular season and dispatched the Detroit Red Wings in five games in the first round.
Nashville scored two first-period goals in a span of 76 seconds, then used stout defense and some great goaltending late to defeat the Coyotes 2-0 and cut Phoenix's lead in this series to 2-1.
Rinne made 32 saves, including a couple of outstanding stops during a late 5-on-3 power play for Phoenix, and the Predators are back in this series after a physical, defensive-oriented contest at Bridgestone Arena.
"Yeah, that was a lot better," Nashville captain Shea Weber said. "That was more like the way we need to play. We didn't give up as much. They're a good team. They're quick. We've got to play the same way."
Added Rinne: "It's always tough after ... you give up a lot of goals and lose two games in a row. You put a lot of pressure on yourself and it feels good to win this one, and play a solid game. It makes the series totally different now."
The Predators were without Alexander Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn, both of whom were suspended for this game because of a violation of team rules. Radulov was the team's leading postseason point producer and Kostitsyn the co-leader in goals scored, but the Predators rediscovered their strong defensive form in their absence.
After the early goals, Nashville clamped down defensively and limited the quality scoring chances for Phoenix. The Coyotes had scored nine times on Rinne in Phoenix, including five in Game 2.
"They did come harder, but at the same time the goals they scored we gave them," Phoenix captain Shane Doan said. "We know that. We just have to eliminate the mistakes. At the same time when we get our opportunities, Pekka Rinne played great tonight. He played the way he can, and we got to find ways to score."
Phoenix goaltender Mike Smith has a reputation as one of the League's top puck handlers, but he also is one of the most adventurous at straying from his crease. Smith got away with trying to play the puck on a play that nearly turned into a goal for Nashville early in the first period, but a second turnover gave the Predators a 1-0 lead.
Smith went far to his left to play the puck and tried to send a blind pass off the boards to the right wing, but Nashville's Gabriel Bourque intercepted it in the corner and connected with David Legwand in the slot. Smith dove back into the crease, but he couldn't stop Legwand's shot with 8:10 left in the opening period.
"I thought both teams -- there wasn't an abundance of chances out there. We gave them some early, easy ones that were glaring," Phoenix coach Dave Tippett said. "They defended a lot better tonight, but ultimately they were opportunistic on their chances and we couldn't find one. It was a tight game and that's going to happens sometimes."
Nashville pushed its lead to two goals 1:16 later after Martin Erat caused a turnover near the Coyotes' blue line and sent the puck to Sergei Kostitsyn, who was alone in front of Smith. Kostitsyn surprisingly one-timed a pass to Mike Fisher, who to the left of Smith near the goal line. Fisher sent the puck back toward Kostitsyn, but it went off Smith's outstretched stick and into the net, giving Fisher his first goal of this postseason.
Rinne was Nashville's savior late in this contest, but Erat was the best player on the ice for either team. He used his speed to create havoc on the forecheck and his slick hands to pick-pocket Phoenix puck-carriers on numerous occasions like he did on the second goal.
"Our top players I thought were our best players," Nashville coach Barry Trotz said. "Everyone from the goal out. I thought that was great. I thought we had a real good commitment level from everybody. ... We stepped up and played Predator hockey finally in this series, though it is just one game."
Game 4 of this series is here Friday night (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TSN, RDS). Trotz said before Game 3 that he would be inclined to keep the same lineup if his team won. Radulov and Kostitsyn are eligible to return to the lineup, but Jordin Tootoo had a great game as a physical force/pest, and other role players like Matt Halischuk, Colin Wilson and Brandon Yip had quality outings as well.
After a strong, workmanlike performance from his troops against the Coyotes, Trotz is going to have some tough decisions to make before Friday.
"I will never apologize for doing what we felt was right," Trotz said of the suspensions. "It's just a few minutes after the game and I can't give very many answers, but it's very hard to change [the lineup] if everybody is committed like they were. It was a statement. I think it's a privilege to play in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, to play for the Cup, and those guys took advantage of the privilege of playing. I think that's the sacred part of the playoffs. It will be very hard to change a whole lot from that group."