It was the first game since March 17 for the Preds, and after a day off, followed by two days of solid practices, the victory was undoubtedly satisfying.
"We have given up [a lead] the past couple of games, so we said we have to put our foot on the gas and close it out nicely,” forward Taylor Beck said. “We have the best fans in the League, so they definitely deserve a win, and we were fortunate enough to get it tonight.”
Buffalo goaltender Matt Hackett turned aside more than 20 pucks through the first half of the contest, until Beck redirected a Shea Weber point shot on the power play at 14:52 of the middle frame for a 1-0 Nashville advantage.
The Predators carried that lead into the second intermission and then built on it in the third. Craig Smith and Mike Fisher tallied for the Preds, with Ryan Ellis and Matt Cullen adding two assists each. Smith’s goal was his team-leading 23rd of the season.
Nashville’s win completed a season sweep of the Sabres and snapped a five-game home losing streak.
Practice Makes Perfect:
During the Predators two lengthy practice sessions on Thursday and Friday, the power play saw its fair share of work. Head Coach Peter Laviolette said he wanted his units to get the extra time because the importance of winning the special teams battle rises during the stretch run as the games tighten defensively.
With injuries to James Neal and Colin Wilson, Taylor Beck spent time working in front of the net, practicing screens and deflections.
“We’ve been working to get a net-front presence in front of their goalie,” Beck said following Thursday’s session. “That’s how you’re going to score in this League on the power play. The goalies are too good if they’re seeing the puck, so I’m going to do everything I can to get to the front of the net and see what happens.”
Practice makes perfect, right?
Beck’s game-winning goal off a deflection on the power-play on Saturday certainly seems to say it does.
“We wanted to get a lot of pucks at the net, and we were fortunate enough that [Shea] Weber got a good shot off and I was able to get a tip on it,” Beck said.
“It was a great play with Beck going to the net and it was huge goal for us,” Ellis said of the deflection. “We were getting pucks to the net, we just weren’t getting any bounces. But sure enough, four seconds into the power play we get a goal which was a huge momentum swing for us.”
Laviolette’s only complaint was that the the PPG came so quickly, he didn’t have much of a chance to see the Preds net-front presence in action. Beck’s goal came four seconds after the man advantage began.
“We never really got there,” Laviolette said of seeing the net-front presence at work on the PP. “We put in a lot of work on the power play the last few days and then we spent about five seconds on it tonight.
“We’ll go back and work on it again on Monday and take it into Tuesday’s game. I do think the net-front presence, not just on the power-play, but 5-on-5, was a lot more noticeable tonight.”
Ellis Adds More Offense, Minutes:
In the midst of a career-year in virtually every major statistical category, Mattias Ekholm said he was admittedly a bit lost when his defensive partner for the first 40 games of the season went down with an injury. But now that Ryan Ellis has begun to perform at the level he was prior missing 21 contests, the pairing’s minutes and effectiveness have increased dramatically.
“We’ve had good chemistry all year; it was a tough break for me with [Ellis] going down for the weeks he was out,” Ekholm said prior to Saturday night’s 3-0 win. “But he’s been playing well since he got back. We picked up where we left off, and he’s just going to get better with the more ice time he gets. He’s been playing great, so it feels good right now.”
Ellis agrees that he and Ekholm have developed quite the on-ice connection. The chemistry for the blueliners has clicked to the tune of Ellis tying a career high in goals (achieved in 37 fewer games), the aforementioned record offensive production for Ekholm, and most importantly, strong possession stats and plus-minus as a pair.
“We’re like [Roman] Josi and Weber in that way, they have great chemistry together,” Ellis said of his partnership with Ekholm. “It developed over a couple games last year, and it’s continued into this season. We have a lot of fun playing together, we talk a lot, we help each other out and I think our games complement each other.”
Saturday, Ellis and Ekholm resuming their place of prominence took another step forward in the Preds win over the Sabres. The pairing have steadily seen their minutes and production rise since reuniting less than 10 games ago at the beginning of the March.
Against the Sabres, Ellis registered his first two-point game since re-entering the club’s lineup after his lower-body ailment.
“He’s been great since he came back,” Beck said of Ellis. “He’s got a special way of getting the puck to the net. He’s offensively gifted, as you can see with a couple of assists tonight. He was tremendous out there.”
“It was nice to get the points, but more importantly, the team winning is what matters,” Ellis said. “It’s been awhile since we won at home, so to come back with this performance and see Rinne back to form was huge.”
Forward Viktor Arvidsson finished with 12:52 of ice time, three shots and one hit in his NHL debut. Nashville’s bench boss liked what he saw from the 21-year-old Swede in his first taste of NHL action.
“I thought he was really good, effective and noticeable,” Laviolette said. “He was fast and he was competitive. The puck was on his stick, and he had a couple of good looks. He did a nice job.”
Paul Gaustad went a perfect 13-for-13 in the face-off circle against the Sabres.
Saturday’s contest against Buffalo was Nashville’s 25th sell out of the season, tying a franchise record for most sell outs in a single campaign.
Forwards Colin Wilson (lower-body) James Neal (upper-body) and Eric Nystrom (lower-body) were all scratched from Saturday’s game.