NASHVILLE, Tennessee – The Central Division-leading Nashville Predators are the NHL’s best team on home ice for a reason.
His name? Pekka Rinne.
Rinne, the ultimate difference-maker, made 32 saves – including 13 in the third period alone – while Shea Weber, Filip Forsberg and James scored as the Predators handed the Winnipeg Jets a 3-1 defeat on Thursday night at Bridgestone Arena.
All three Predators goals came on the power-play.
Michael Frolik scored the lone goal for the Jets, while Ondrej Pavelec made 23 saves.
“He played well. He’s a good goalie and he’s played awesome all year,” Jets winger Blake Wheeler said. “It was right there. A bounce or two our way and it could have been a different game. You’ve got to give him a lot of credit. He battled out there and he’s on top of things. Even when you have a good look, he’s not giving you much.
“That’s what good goalies do.”
“It was a hard-fought game – a good game against a pretty good team,” Head Coach Paul Maurice added. “I liked a lot of what we did tonight except for the result.”
Weber put the Predators up 1-0 early, setting the tone in a game decided by special teams. With Ben Chiarot off serving a penalty for delay of game, that patented rocket of his – registering 108.5mph at the NHL All-Star Game – sailed high glove side, opening the scoring at 4:47.
Pavelec, who came into the night with a 1.70 goals-against average and a .938 save percentage against the Predators this season, kept his team in it with a number of spectacular saves early on; among them, a beautiful stop off Colin Wilson in tight. Sprawling from his knees, Pavelec denied the Predator forward with a ridiculous glove save midway through the opening 20.
The Jets brought the game back on even terms with a power-play marker of their own a short while later. Parked in front, Frolik redirected a Dustin Byfuglien point shot, making it a 1-1 game at 11:42. Frolik now has 11 goals and 27 points while Byfuglien, back on defence, has 24 helpers in 56 games.
No. 33 trails Andrew Ladd (27) and Blake Wheeler (26) for the team lead in that category.
“The pace and the intensity reminded me of some of the old Sabres teams I’ve been a part of where we’ve been in the mix all the time,” newcomer Drew Stafford said.
“I felt as though we were right there with them for the majority of the game.”
With Anthony Peluso off serving his second minor penalty of the game (hooking), Filip Forsberg made him pay. Walking in to the top of the far circle, the rookie rifled a shot top shelf on Pavelec, putting the Predators back in front, 2-1 at 3:38.
Forsberg is running at a point-per-game pace in his last 11 for a 55-game total of 19 goals and 31 assists. The 20-year-old now leads the team in goals and has passed Alexander Radulov for most goals by a rookie in Predators history.
Willing his way to the net after burning past Anton Volchenkov, Wheeler had a glorious opportunity to even things up late, but his bullish try was kicked out in tight.
“Not many teams come in here and put up 30-plus shots on these guys,” Wheeler said. “I’d say we did pretty well when it comes to getting pucks on net.”
Rinne had a strong third period – his best coming hot off the stick of Bryan Little, who had nothing but net to shoot for on an early Jets power-play. Andrew Ladd suffered a similar fate on a 5-on-3 midway through. The 32-year-old smothered each and every one of the captain’s attempts in tight, preserving the lead.
With 8:49 to play, the 16,135 on hand gave their start netminder a standing ovation.
“He played out of his mind,” Stafford said. “We hit a bunch of posts, but unfortunately it slipped away. There’s a reason why they’re one of the best, if not the best [team] in the league… It’s because of Rinne.”
With 3:50 left in regulation. Neal put this one to bed, sending a shot past Pavelec for the insurance marker.
“They invested a lot in that game and didn’t win, so that hurts even more,” Maurice said. “Now we’ve got to reload. We’ve got to get back on the horse and get that good feeling back. Everyone’s going to be awfully quiet tonight and then tomorrow we’ll get back to work.”
— Ryan Dittrick, WinnipegJets.com