DETROIT -- It was evident in the desperation of their play and their confidence while hanging onto a one-goal lead late in the third period against the Detroit Red Wings.
The Nashville Predators have come a long way since dropping a gut-wrenching playoff game in 2010 that ultimately led to their season ending and the Chicago Blackhawks springing toward the Stanley Cup.
The evidence was on the ice at Joe Louis Arena on Tuesday night, when the Predators beat Detroit 3-1 and won for a second straight game while largely getting outplayed. Nashville swept through the Motor City this week like a lingering storm front and now leads this Western Conference Quarterfinals series 3-1 heading back to Bridgestone Arena for Game 5 on Friday.
The Predators can close out the more-storied Red Wings in that game and now looked mature enough to do it -- much like Detroit once did in the early 1990s, at the start of its impressive string of four Stanley Cup titles and 21 straight appearances in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"Along the road of being a franchise, you go through a lot of hard lessons," said Nashville coach Barry Trotz, the only coach in the 13 seasons the Predators have existed. "I know Detroit, a number of years [ago] when I was a lot younger, really went through some hard lessons when they had some really good teams and they learned from that and they've been a real strong franchise ever since. They've won some Cups and did all those things that we aspire to do."
If Predators goalie Pekka Rinne and the defense in front of him keep playing this way, Nashville might just have a chance to do some of those same things in these playoffs. Gabriel Bourque, Kevin Klein and David Legwand scored the goals in this game, but it was Rinne and his 40-save performance that left everybody shaking their head afterward. Simply put, if it wasn't for the 6-foot-5 Rinne's dazzling performance in goal, the series would almost surely be evened up at two games apiece.
"We were on our heels way too much and it definitely showed in the shot total," said Klein, whose team was outshot by a 41-17 margin after being outshot 43-22 in Game 3 on Sunday. "I mean, I think we only had 10 shots after two periods and you're not going to win too many times [that way] without a goalie like [Rinne]. He did it all tonight. Thank goodness we have him."
Rinne, who was sharp right from the get-go after Detroit came out flying, was also in the goal for the Predators back in 2010 in Chicago. He allowed Patrick Kane's goal with 13 seconds left in regulation to force overtime and also allowed Marian Hossa's overtime game-winner.
Neither he nor the smattering of other Predators who were on that team and experienced the feeling afterward have forgotten the experience. In fact, they've used it as a learning lesson and appear to be gaining confidence the more they play these type of closely-contested playoff games.
Rinne led the Preds to a six-game first-round series win last year against Anaheim -- the first in franchise history -- and now has a chance help Nashville take another step by ending this series on Friday night.
"They always say the closing game is the hardest," said Rinne, who only allowed Jiri Hudler's goal off a deflection of a point blast by Niklas Kronwall that tied it 1-1 3:14 into the third. "We don't have too much experience with that. We won the Anaheim series last year, but I remember that sixth game at home [last year] and that was a hard battle. Guys really wanted it and we were ready for it. It's going to be the same way again."
Speaking of things being the same, this game basically mirrored the second half of Game 3 here on Sunday, in which Detroit dominated puck-possession and the shots tally but lost the game by a 3-2 margin. After dominating the final period of that game, the Wings wanted to carry that momentum over into the start of Game 4 -- in hopes of building a big early lead.
They did exactly what they wanted, too, but it didn't really matter because the Predators have a stifling defensive system and the athletic, tall Rinne -- who masked a lot of his team's defensive breakdowns with incredible saves of the "how did he do that?" variety.
"Once again, we created a lot of stuff," Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg said. "We created a lot of chances and we can’t really get the puck behind him. It’s easy to blame that. We’ve just got to keep going and do the things we do. I think you deserved your own bounces."
The Wings didn't get many of those bounces that went their way, either.
Despite Detroit dominating the play in the first 40 minutes and leading 28-10 in shots at the second intermission, the Predators took control early in the third. Bourque scored his third goal of the series for a 1-0 lead just 27 seconds after an apparent goal by Legwand from a bad angle was disallowed.
That broke a scoreless tie that had lasted that long almost entirely because of Rinne. Hudler then tipped home Kronwall's point blast to tie it just 1:19 later to give the Wings a huge boost, which Klein snuffed 3:11 later with his second goal in as many games and the eventual game-winner.
Legwand then added the insurance goal for the final score with just 39 seconds left, after the Predators fought off a late power play and Rinne made more memorable stops. Jimmy Howard took the loss for the Red Wings while making just 14 saves, but the three he didn't make will have to be erased before Friday -- including Klein's.
After Martin Erat split Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom and Hudler entering the offensive zone off a rush, he headed to the left corner of the rink and took three Wings players with him. Howard also drifted out of the crease in that direction and Erat zipped a pass back to Klein all alone in the slot for an easy shot into a vacated net.
Now it's back to Nashville with the series clinched in the Predators' jaws and the Wings with their backs to the proverbial wall.
"We got our two wins, but we have to close it and focus on the next game already," said Erat, who was on that 2010 Predators team that coughed up the late lead against the Blackhawks. "You saw in the last couple minutes of the game. That is what we didn't have when we played against Chicago ... that experience. Guys stepped up and have learned from the past and you can see the experience coming out."
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