No one seemed overly surprised - nor should they have been - when Filip Forsberg fed fellow countryman Mattias Ekholm at the right face-off dot late in 3-on-3 overtime on Saturday against the Carolina Hurricanes, allowing Ekholm to tally the game winner, the first marker in the new, extra-time format in Nashville Predators’ history. If the blueliner deciding to cut deep into an opponent’s zone for an up-close opportunity has become customary enough, so too has his ability to convert in high-stakes situations.
The 25-year-old Swede’s trend of delivering in dramatic fashion emerged during a career-best campaign last season with an overtime winner in Minnesota and at least two other plays that saw him weave through the opposition’s defense to score improbable goals.
“For me, it’s more about when you see the opportunity, you make the decision early and just go for it,” Ekholm said following the team’s practice on Monday at Bridgestone Arena. “It’s working for me right now, and it’s always fun to score winners and big goals… Skating is one of my bigger assets, so I try to use that, and if I can keep my momentum coming back, it shouldn’t hurt us in the defensive zone.”
Ekholm’s ascension parallels with the installation of a new, on-ice system following the appointment of Peter Laviolette as the Preds second head coach in franchise history last year, but the d-man says his success has been more about maturity rather than a former coach holding him back.
“I think a part of it is that when [former Preds Head Coach Barry] Trotz was here, I was fresh to the NHL, my first game was under him and then my first NHL season too, it’s tough to compare for me because everything feels like it slows down after a season or a season and a half, when you get used to it and you open up so much more,” Ekholm said. “Laviolette’s system is more offensive for d-men, but it also requires a lot more from them, too. In skating, you have to be joining the rush; that’s how you create odd-man situations up ice and that’s how we score goals. But as soon as you’re up there, and the puck turns over, you have to be back quick. It requires a lot, but it’s a fun style to play, and I like it.”
With five goals so far this season, four of which have been in the third period or later, Ekholm’s teammates have started to take notice of his late-game heroics - some more seriously than others.
“He’s taken a lot of huge strides the last two seasons. Last year, he became a top-four defenseman and then this year he’s continued where he left off, and he’s a great player,” Preds netminder Pekka Rinne said of Ekholm. “[Saturday versus Carolina] he snuck in and got a really good pass from Filip and was able to kind of dance in and bury it top shelf. It was a really nice individual effort and we needed that for sure; it was the first OT win for us and nice for Ekholm to get that first for us.”
“He’s just mentally so strong, I guess, and he’s just a big time player. I haven’t talked to him since, but he hasn’t talked to anyone since he scored that game winner,” defenseman Roman Josi joked.
Now with the box next to 3-on-3 OT victory checked, Ekholm has the key for how Nashville can claim two wins in a row in games going past 60 minutes.
“It was nice for the whole team, just to get one, to get one win. It was a little weight off our shoulders,” Ekholm said. “I think we really can play well in 3-on-3, we only allowed [Carolina] to have a shot or two and then we had ours. We’ve been working on it, and talking about it, and I think the results showed. We just need to keep being aware, and if it comes around here again soon, we’ll want to hold onto the puck again and execute.”
Road-Heavy, Central Schedule Begins:
After a December schedule that saw the Preds have nine games within the walls of Bridgestone Arena, the month of January keeps them away from home for all but three contests over the next 25 days as All-Star preparations continue in Music City.
One of those three outings will take place tomorrow against the Winnipeg Jets, a Central Division opponent the Preds have already defeated by a 7-0 count earlier in the season. The Jets currently sit last in the division with 38 points, but a regulation win tomorrow would put them just five behind the Preds. It may still be too early to start watching the standings with regularity, but a quick glance shows that only 12 points separates spots two through seven in the Central, with a little over half the season yet to go for Nashville.
“Those Central Division games are always important, and I think Winnipeg, they’re close [to us], so it’s definitely a huge game,” defenseman Josi said. “You want to get as many points as you can against those Central Division teams.”
All three of those January home games come against Central Division clubs - Winnipeg, Chicago and Minnesota - adding further emphasis for the Preds to perform well when they have the Smashville faithful behind them.
“You want to get into a good stretch and win some games and put some wins together,” Rinne said. “[There are some] really big games in January; only three home games, so we really want to take care of those, and some games on the road, too.”
Bourque Practices; Monday’s Forward Lines:
After participating in a morning skate in Nashville last week, forward Gabriel Bourque (Injured Reserve, upper-body) took part in a full practice on Monday, skating in a familiar spot at left wing on the third line during line rushes, making progress toward a return to the lineup.
“He’s got a lot of heart in the game,” Head Coach Peter Laviolette said of Bourque. “He brings speed and passion, determination, [he’s good on the] penalty kill; all those things are real strengths of his. We certainly have missed him and what he brings to the table, so it’s nice to see him out there practicing with us.”
Nashville’s combos on Monday looked like this:
| ||Forwards || |
|Filip Forsberg ||Mike Ribeiro ||Craig Smith |
|Viktor Arvidsson ||Colin Wilson ||James Neal |
|Gabriel Bourque ||C. Jarnkrok/M. Fisher ||Cody Hodgson |
|Eric Nystrom ||Paul Gaustad ||M. Salomaki/A. Watson |
Shot of the Day: