ST. PAUL -- If the Minnesota Wild miss the playoffs by a point or two, Tuesday night's game against Nashville could be one that haunts them all summer.
Minnesota led 4-1 with less than 11 minutes to go, only to see the Predators rally for four goals and a 5-4 victory. Mike Fisher's goal with 20.8 seconds left in regulation capped Nashville's rally and gave the Predators their fifth straight win, capping a month in which they went 11-2-0.
The victory marked the seventh time this season Nashville has rallied from a multiple-goal deficit to win, including twice in which the Preds dug themselves out of a three-goal hole.
"They don't ask you how, but sometimes how many," Predators coach Barry Trotz said. "We weren't as good as we needed to be, but we found a way."
The loss seemed to tell the story of Minnesota's entire season so far -- an impressive start followed by an inexplicable collapse. Buoyed by a pair of Dany Heatley goals, Minnesota led 2-0 after the first period. After the teams traded goals in the second, Kyle Brodziak put Minnesota on top 4-1 by scoring just 16 seconds into the third period.
But the Predators would not relent, as Brandon Yip got the Preds within 4-2 goals at 9:22 and Nashville tied it on goals by Patrik Hornqvist and Fisher 21 seconds apart, making it 4-4 with three minutes left in regulation.
At that point, Minnesota was doing all it could just to extend the game to overtime and get at least an all-important point in the standings. For a moment, it appeared the Wild would get the game to bonus hockey, but a soft shot by Fisher near the right half-wall somehow made it through Josh Harding's pads, as the home crowd -- at least the ones who hadn't left with the Wild up big just minutes earlier -- showered the team with boos.
"Have you ever been punched in the stomach really hard? That's what this feels like," said Wild coach Mike Yeo. "
Afterwards, Harding sat in his locker stall stunned in a barren dressing room. With his face down and eyes red, Harding, to his credit, took responsibility for the loss, trying to explain the unexplainable.
"It beat me," Harding said of the winner. "Awful goal. Probably one of the worst ones I've ever given up in my life. No excuses, no nothing. That one's on me.
"That's a goalie's worst nightmare right there. Just inexcusable. I lost this one for the team."
Yeo said it wasn't fair for Harding to take the entirety of the blame, saying it appeared his team "ran completely out of gas.
"It didn't seem like there was a sense of panic on the bench," Yeo said. "Once we got up 4-1, I've never seen us laying on the ice as much as we were. The d-zone, we weren't pressuring at all. The one-on-one battles we were winning earlier, we couldn't win one anymore. It just leads me to believe that we were tired."
Minnesota had Nashville on the ropes early, taking advantage of numerous defensive zone breakdowns. Each of Minnesota's first three goals came after some sort of Nashville error in its own end.
Heatley's first goal came on a nice hustle play by Nick Johnson, who beat both of the Preds' All-Star defensemen, Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, to a loose puck in the corner. He centered for Heatley in the slot for a one-timer and a 1-0 lead 8:04 into the game.
Four minutes later and on the power play, Heatley batted in a puck in front after Matt Cullen chased down a Nashville defender and the puck behind Pekka Rinne's net and flipped it to the Wild sniper in front.
Just 1:29 into the second, Cal Clutterbuck scored his 13th of the season to give Minnesota a 3-0 lead -- beating Preds blueliner Kevin Klein from the left wall to the top of the crease and slamming the puck through Rinne's pads.
It was the first time in nine games that Rinne had allowed more than two goals in a game. And at the time, it appeared the Wild would easily extend their winning streak to three games.
"It feels like two different games," Yeo said. "The good news is, when we were doing the right things, we saw the result."
Nashville pulled within 3-1 at 9:33 of the second on a tip-in by Matt Halischuk, but Brodziak's tap-in of a loose puck at the left post just seconds into the third re-established the three-goal lead.
The rally started with 10:38 remaining in the game when Yip pounded at a loose puck in the crease, pushing the puck across in a play that was ruled on the ice as no goal. After a short review, the call was overturned and the score was 4-2.
"[Yip and Halischuk] really gave us a chance to get back in it," Trotz said. "Then our core players showed up."
The goal gave Nashville momentum and the Predators, unable to maintain quality offensive zone time for much of the night, were all of a sudden buzzing Harding's goal.
Like Yip's goal, Hornqvist's 15th of the season came after seconds of hammering at the puck at the left post before it finally trickled across the goal line. Both Harding and Yeo thought he had covered, but the play was not reviewed and the score was 4-3 with 3:21 to play.
Fisher's tying goal came just 21 seconds later after a defensive breakdown in front of Harding allowed the veteran center to tap a centering feed by Colin Wilson into a wide-open net at the 17-minute mark.
"At that point, we're definitely not changing anything," Halischuk said. "We just wanted to stay on them and push for that next one.
"Luckily it came in regulation tonight."
Rinne escaped with the victory, struggling much of the night but not being challenged much over the final 15 minutes. He stopped 21 shots.
"We've got to leave in a hurry and make sure they don't take these points away," said Rinne, who won his 10th consecutive decision.
Meanwhile, Minnesota is left to try and pick up the pieces. The team hits the road for a critical three-game road trip beginning Thursday night in Colorado against an Avalanche team sitting just a point behind the Wild for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West.
"It's a huge challenge for us, because this stings," Yeo said. "But what we have to do is make sure this is a story today and not a story at the end of the year."
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