The eyes of North America were on Bridgestone Arena on a Friday night in mid-January as the NHL’s two hottest teams collided in what was a return journey for one of the two head coaches.
After being behind the bench of the Nashville Predators for more than 15 years as they evolved from an expansion franchise to a playoff contender, Washington Capitals Head Coach Barry Trotz stood behind the visitors' bench for the first time. Entering the contest with points in nine consecutive games, the Preds scored twice in the final five minutes of regulation, including a steal-and-score with roughly a minute and a half left from James Neal, to end the Capitals three-game winning streak and spoil Trotz’s return to Music City.
"I had some butterflies going out there," Trotz said. "A lot of good memories. Every time I walked out there, the fans were so great, so I want to thank them. They were absolutely tremendous tonight to me."
Three-straight goals from the Capitals - including two off the stick of Alex Ovechkin - forced the Predators to rely on the resiliency that defined much of the 2014-15 campaign. A power-play marker from Mattias Ekholm and Neal’s second of the night proved they were again up to the task.
"I think our team has found a way to win all year, whether we are tied going into the third period, or we’ve held onto a lead, or we’ve lost a lead and won it in overtime,” Predators Head Coach Peter Laviolette said. “I think our best moments were when it became 3-2 and from that point on, for the rest of the game, the guys pressed and pushed and got involved in the rush. I really like the fact that there was a lot of confidence when it was 3-2."
The thrilling, emotion-filled contest felt like more than just another regular season game when it first happened, and months later as it sits as our No. 1 game of the 2014-15 regular season, it still does.
Less than three minutes after Ekholm’s one-timer on the power play tied the contest, Neal charged into the offensive zone in pursuit of Capitals D-man, and his former Penguins teammate a year prior, Matt Niskanen. Fading back toward the right face-off dot, Niskanen attempted a cross-zone, saucer pass that Neal chopped out of the air before pushing the puck toward the goal on a partial breakaway.
The 23-goal scorer in 2014-15 quickly settled the puck and tucked the game-winner in five-hole on Braden Holtby with 100 ticks left in regulation.
"I think we did a good job of [being on the forecheck] all night with a team like that who has a ton of offensive guys that are great getting up in the rush and making plays," Neal told NHL.com following the Preds victory. "I think we did a good job in the neutral zone, and our forecheck was great all night."
Trotz Comes Home:
Barry Trotz said he knew he’d be emotional when walking the hallways of an arena that had housed so many memories over his nearly two-decade tenure in Nashville, but most of all, seeing so many of his friends and family again would be what would make the experience so meaningful.
“This is home; this is where our kids are,” Trotz said. “This [move] sort of re-energized myself, I think it also re-energized the Preds and that’s the best of both worlds. I think both teams are doing pretty well. So you say did it work out for both? I’d say yes, absolutely.”
At the first TV timeout of the first period, the Predators in turn said “thank you” to their former head coach.
"It was very, very touching," Trotz said of the tribute video in his postgame press conference. "It was a classy gesture by the organization. The fans are always great. Keep it rolling, it's a wonderful place to play. It's a hard building to play in right now. You talk about the Colosseum, I think [St. Louis Blues coach] Ken Hitchcock was the first guy that used to talk about it. If you're playing on a Saturday night, or in this case Friday night, in Nashville, Tennessee with a packed house, it's like the Roman Colosseum."
Gif of the Game:
A pretty easy pick this time.
The comeback win, which put Nashville in sole possession of first place in the NHL, was a result of the Predators believing they could emerge victorious even after they were down a score with less than 5 minutes to play, said Ekholm. The Swedish blueliner had seen his team find the tying and winning goals many times before in the season and trusted they would again versus the Caps.
“We all feel it in [the locker room],” Ekholm said. “It’s a group with so much character and we’ve been battling back from deficits in the third before. We just stick with it and then we get the power-play goal and then the lucky bounce, but I still think we always feel like we’re going to come back. If we keep working hard then we’ll be rewarded.”