But on Sunday, some late-game heroics from Mike Ribeiro put the Preds into overtime, then Carter Hutton and Filip Forsberg assured a 2-1 shootout victory over the Buffalo Sabres at the First Niagara Center.
Jumping on their opponent early wasn’t the visitor’s problem against the Sabres, instead Nashville struggled with an inability to find the twine. The Preds led in shots 25-8 through two periods - a sharp contrast to their poor offensive output a day prior against the Flyers - but still Nashville could not get on the scoreboard.
“[Saturday against the Flyers] we were on the other side of the game,”Ribeiro said. “We weren’t getting a lot of shots, but we were still in the game. [Sunday], we got a lot of shots and couldn't bury them. We just kept doing the same thing, and grinding away and we knew if we stuck to the game plan then we’d have a chance to tie the game and we were able to do that.”
A Tyler Ennis tally with 14 seconds left in the middle frame put the Sabres up 1-0 and the visitors again frustrated through 40 minutes.
“We liked the way we played,” Nashville Head Coach Peter Laviolette said of his team’s performance through the first two periods. “Their goaltender played really well, we had a lot of attempts and chances. We just thought if we kept playing that way, we’d score a goal. We’d like to think that anyway. It was all positive [during the second intermission].”
With under five minutes remaining in regulation, the Predators finally broke through with a Ribeiro power-play goal. Nashville solved the Sabres Michal Neuvirth on their 34th shot of the evening after the goaltender had been perfect over the game’s first 55 minutes.
D-man Cody Franson slapped a puck on net from the top of the right circle and Ribeiro was given a tap-in goal off the rebound from Neuvirth’s pads.
“Definitely feels good,” Franson said of recording his first point with the Preds since being traded for a week ago. “I thought we played a pretty solid game for the most part. It’s nice to be able to contribute and help the team win. [That goal] got it into extra time and I thought we almost ended it there. [Hutton] played extremely well and gave us a chance in the shootout and we converted.”
Once Nashville found the equalizer, Hutton helped keep the game 1-1 through overtime and into a shootout. Another new Pred, Mike Santorelli, scored in the shootout and then Forsberg added the game-winner in the fourth round of the skills competition.
“We didn’t play a good game at all [Saturday], we didn’t get out of the starting gate,” Laviolette said. “There’s no excuses, things happen and it happened. We played well enough in the third and overtime to grab a point, but I think when that happens, you look for a response from your team. I really liked our response [Sunday]. It was hard-charging, on the attack and pretty solid defensively - a good job.”
Sunday’s win, one certainly that didn’t come easily, makes the Predators the first team in the NHL to record 40 victories this season. Nashville reclaimed a six-point lead over the League with two points in the finale of a three-game road trip that saw them go 1-1-1.
Memories Flood Back for Housley:
The memories flow quickly for Predators Assistant Coach Phil Housley when he returns to Buffalo, New York. In his second year behind the Nashville bench, Housley is in the midst of a new chapter in his time in the NHL, a journey that started in 1982 when the defenseman turned coach was drafted by the Buffalo Sabres as an 18-year-old fresh out of high school.
Housley played eight seasons for the League’s club in Northwest New York, notching 558 points and beginning one of the greatest careers ever turned in by an American NHLer.
“Anytime I come back to Buffalo, I think about how this is where my life in hockey started,” Housley said. “It was a big [risk] for the Sabres, you never know what you’re going to get when you draft an 18-year-old that’s sort of unproven and hasn’t played a Junior game.
“I had a measuring stick in Finland in the World Championships playing with the pros like Mike Ramsey and Mark Johnson and a lot of the guys that were on the 1980 Olympic team. I saw how I measured up and I think I did really well, and that was one of the reasons why I decided to enter the draft and turn pro because I thought I could make that jump.”
As a teenager, Housley’s transition was remarkably smooth into the world’s premier hockey league, and the dynamic blueliner produced a feature film’s worth of highlights over the course of his career. The Preds coach remains the fourth highest-scoring NHL D-man of all-time and holds the second most points by an American-born player with 1,232 career points.
Two decades on the ice in the NHL has helped the coach relate to the Predators he helps manage, according to Housley.
“I think I can relate to the players a lot easier because I’ve been through the grind of an NHL season,” Housley said. “It’s tough with an 82-game schedule, and you’re not going to be at your best every night. You try to take that mental aspect of motivating yourself every game and [I understand that].
“I think the technical part of the game and the structure has seen new heights, but the mental part and what these guys are going through in a grinding season, I can really relate to.”
That ability to relate to his players has also helped Housley work with the Preds newest blueliner, Cody Franson, whom the team acquired via trade earlier this month.
“No. 1, it will be about finding chemistry with his defensive partner; you want to know the characteristics of your partner,” Housley said of Franson’s acclimation to the lineup. “I think that’s going to be the hardest thing is finding his spot and how he helps us. There will certainly be some trial and error and we’ll work for him to be a part of our team right away.”
On Sunday against the Sabres, Franson recorded his first point since rejoining the Predators - an assist on Ribeiro’s game-tying goal.
Nashville claimed a 2-1 shootout win in Housley’s return trip to Buffalo on Feb 22. He didn’t score a goal or notch an assist in the victory - something of a rarity for him in that city - but his team did march to their 40th victory of the season, and that’s all that matters these days.
With Sunday’s victory over the Sabres, the Preds set a new franchise record, becoming the fastest team in club history to reach the 40-win plateau. The previous record, held by the 2006-07 squad, was 40 wins in 61 games. This season’s team attained the feat in just 60 contests.
Nashville is now 3-3-2 in the second half of back-to-back situations this season. The Preds are 16-6-2 against the Eastern Conference this season and have recorded points in eight of their last nine games.
Carter Hutton is now 6-4-4 on the season, including a 6-1-2 record in his last nine starts. Even more impressive, Hutton is 4-0-0 in his last four nods with a 1.45 goals-against average and a .941 save percentage. Hutton’s last two victories have come via the shootout.
The Preds return home to Nashville for a three-game home stand this week, including two Central Division matchups, one on Tuesday against Colorado, the other on Thursday versus Minnesota. The Predators close out the trio of games with an afternoon matinee against Detroit on Saturday.