NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Martin Erat played five seasons with Czech countryman Tomas Vokoun as members of the Nashville Predators. The pair also has also played together on two Olympic teams.
As a result, Erat knows a thing or two about how to beat Vokoun -- one of the League's top goalies who is off to a hot start with eight wins in his first season with Washington entering Tuesday.
Especially when Vokoun is on top of his game.
For more than 55 minutes, Vokoun kept the Predators off the board until Erat scored the tying goal 28 seconds after Washington had broken a scoreless tie. Then Erat set up the game-winner by Colin Wilson with some nifty stick-handling with just 25 seconds left in regulation for a 3-1 Nashville win at Bridgestone Arena.
"Obviously, I know Voky and you're not going to beat him straight if he sees the shots," said Erat. "He's too good for it. You have to move him side to side and that's what happened on both of those goals."
Erat and Nashville's top defense pair of Shea Weber, who scored an empty-netter just five seconds after Wilson's goal, and Ryan Suter all finished plus-3 against the Capitals, one of the League's most dangerous offensive teams. Nashville has points in eight of its last nine games (6-1-2) after earning a win in the second of what is a five-game homestand.
"Our big-time players stepped up tonight when it was on the line," Nashville coach Barry Trotz said.
The game showcased two of the top goalies in the NHL – a current Nashville Predator and a former one – who fought to a virtual standstill, giving the game the look of a match that could go scoreless into a shootout. Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne, a 2011 Vezina Trophy finalist and the League's current co-leader in shutouts with three, and Vokoun (28 saves), who began the night with a 2.39 goals-against average and .921 save percentage, entered tied for third in the League in wins with eight apiece.
Rinne, who stopped 39 of 40 shots, made numerous difficult saves to keep the Predators in it, including one with his back turned that he caught with his glove.
"He made some really big saves," Trotz said. "There's one that I don't know he even saw the puck. It was going behind him and he reached back. Enough said. You saw it."
The Capitals, who won their first seven games of the season, dropped to 1-3-1 in their last five and 3-5-1 since that hot start. Washington coach Bruce Boudreau was not amused about how the game unraveled in the final minutes for his team.
"This is a tough one to take," he said. "I thought for 56 minutes we played as good as we could play. The last two periods, I thought we totally dominated. We scored the goal to take the lead and then we stopped playing."
Washington's Troy Brouwer finally broke a scoreless tie with 4:46 left in regulation, taking a beautiful cross-ice pass from Marcus Johansson and roofing a wrist shot.
Then Nashville tied it on the next shift. Boudreau said his team thought the play was offside and that his players stopped playing. Weber then took the puck deep down the ice along the boards and fed Erat with a goalmouth pass for the tap in at 15:42.
"I think all the guys on the ice thought it was offsides, so they stopped playing," Boudreau said. "And (Nashville) didn't stop playing. That's why you have to play to the whistle. Just looking at the replay, guys were putting up their hands and they stopped skating and (Nashville) kept coming and that's why it looked so easy."
The game-winning goal also was hard to take for Washington. Caps defenseman John Erskine lost his stick, giving Wilson and Erat a virtual 2-on-0 down low. Wilson passed to Erat behind the net and Erat, instead of opting to try to stuff the puck in, threw it back into the slot where Wilson dove after it, sending it into an open net, and then was sent crashing to the ice by Washington defenders.
"I don't know, I just wanted to do a Bobby Orr finish, I guess," Wilson said.
The game featured numerous sparkling saves. Vokoun's included a left pad save to blunt Mike Fisher's shorthanded try with 2:39 left in the second period.
In a 5-on-3 late in the first period, Rinne had to make a sprawling save on Brooks Laich as time expired for first intermission. Washington, with the League's No. 7 power play (21.0 percent), was 0-for-3, including a brief 4-on-3 (24 seconds) and a 5-on-3 (32 seconds) that came with Weber and Suter, in the box.
The tough loss for Washington was the kind that a young Nashville team hopes to build upon.
"Right away when they scored that goal, it's a disappointing feeling when you do everything you can and it's in the back of your net," Rinne said. "It was important to us, on this homestand, to bounce back and show some resiliency that we’ve been known to have.
"We never seem to panic or any of that stuff anymore. That is a good sign."