NASHVILLE -- Having stated beforehand that if his team won Game 3, he would likely maintain the same lineup for Game 4, Predators coach Barry Trotz appeared to be leaning in that direction on Thursday after practice at Bridgestone Arena.
Nashville won 2-0 in Game 3 on Wednesday, cutting its series deficit to 2-1 against Phoenix and leaving Trotz with some decisions to make. The underlying question, of course, is whether forwards Alexander Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn, held out of the lineup for disciplinary reasons, would return to the lineup.
Radulov and Kostitsyn are the team’s first- and fourth-leading scorers, respectively, in the Stanley Cup Playoffs
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Trotz said he would watch the game film later in the afternoon and make decisions after that.
"We’ll make a decision as a group,” he said. "I know it’s going to be very tough if I do anything. I thought everybody was pretty committed, so I can’t give you a definite decision right now because I don’t have that. They guys who were in got the job done and played very hard.”
The guys who were in were Matt Halischuk and Jordin Tootoo and they both played on the fourth line centered by Paul Gaustad, whereas Radulov had played on the second line and Andrei Kostitsyn on the third.
Tootoo in particular stood out for praise. He has played 486 NHL games, all with the Predators, but until Game 3, he had only played in one of Nashville’s seven postseason games this season. He earned a career-best 30 points in 77 games, but found himself on the outside looking in when it came playoff time. That did not sit well with, him and he complained publicly to the local newspaper. He did not want to talk about that on Wednesday, but his teammates understood what being back in the lineup meant to him.
"Obviously, it shows that he’s passionate and he wants to play and he got his chance last night and he was ready for the task,” captain Shea Weber said.
Trotz said that Tootoo, who's speedy and a hard-hitter, is the kind of player that other teams do not want to play against. He thought Tootoo’s play tailed off during the regular season but that he was at his best in Game 3. In 10:11 of time on ice, Tootoo had a team-high five hits and also two shots.
"He was on the puck, he was tenacious, he was physical but very disciplined,” Trotz said of Tootoo, who had 92 penalty minutes during the regular season. "He was good on the walls, he was good defensively. He was just one of those guys who is hard to play against. He got away from that for a while and that plus the details. When you get away from your foundation and you get away from the details, there’s not a lot of substance in your game. I talked to him on the ice and I told him I was glad to have him back because that’s where he needs to be.
"… His game has grown in so many areas. Like anything, you’re going to plateau sometimes and you’re going to have some valleys, and he was in a little bit of a valley towards the end of the season. But he had good focus last night, good energy, good discipline. He was a factor in the game, I thought, in terms of being hard to play against.”
Tootoo said he felt refreshed physically both before and after the game.
"When you’re told you’re not able to do what you love growing up, it’s always a tough feeling, but as a pro you have to make sure mentally you’re on the right track and staying positive,” he said.
Now the challenge of staying positive falls to Radulov and Kostitsyn. Trotz said he thought that the players were humble in their behavior and that they are showing some of the right signs, especially in the way they cheered for their teammates despite the paradox that a win could keep them out of the lineup.
Trotz said the two need not be a package deal to get back into the lineup. It’s just as possible that he might insert only one. Radulov said he would not ask Trotz to go back into the lineup and Trotz said he thought that was an example of the 25-year-old Russian being a professional, as any lobbying would not affect his decision one way or another.
"I don’t think it’s right to go and ask,” Radulov said. "Guys played well yesterday. I mean, I want to play, but it’s not like I would go and ask for it. Whatever happens tomorrow happens. We just have to make sure we’re ready for the game.”
One of the larger points is that while Radulov and Kostitsyn were suspended for their off-the-ice actions, their on-ice play, especially in Game 2, was lacking -- Radulov was minus-2 -- as were that of numerous other Preds.
Because Phoenix plays a style that very much mirrors Nashville’s, Trotz was asked whether a lineup with Tootoo and Halischuk might have a greater benefit against the Coyotes. Tootoo and Halischuk are more straight-ahead players, and the style worked for Nashville in Game 3.
"One of the things that you have to realize, the game’s going to dictate how you have to play,” Trotz said. "If there’s no time and space, you can’t dangle. You have to play chip-and-chase or a chip-and-support-type of game. I love the fact that guys can dangle and they stickhandle and all that, but when you stickhandle and you turn pucks over, that’s not effective. Sometimes you have to play the way the game demands you to play, and when you refuse to do that it’ll just be a turnover machine just like it was in Phoenix.”
Trotz said that from the bench, it seemed as if Nashville must have turned the puck over 50 or 60 times in its 5-3 Game 2 loss.
"If you’re not using your skill to your benefit, the opposition just takes advantage of you,” he said.