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Neal Lifts Preds to OT Win Over East's Best

by Thomas Willis / Nashville Predators

The Nashville Predators and Tampa Bay Lightning squared off in a meeting of the top teams in both the Eastern and Western Conferences in the Music City on Tuesday. Thanks to James Neal’s game-winner in the final minute of overtime, the Preds emerged with a 3-2 extra time triumph.

Neal controlled a feed from Roman Josi at the Lightning blue line, then fought off Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman as he cut in on the goal and fired a shot that beat Andrei Vasilevskiy five-hole.

“Josi made a good play there to get it to the middle and I was able to get it back on my stick,” Neal said of the sequence. “I got it on net as quickly as I could.”

Predators blueliner Seth Jones opened the scoring by picking the top left corner on Vasilevskiy at 8:31 of the second period. The score set a new career high for the D-man with points in five-consecutive contests.

“He’s so strong back there,” Neal said of Jones. “He moves so well and has a good shot. He’s jumping up in the rush, it’s very noticeable, and it can make our team go. He’s been making great plays of late and now the pucks are starting to go in for him.”

A little over four minutes later, Nashville’s fourth line got on the board as Taylor Beck stuffed a rebound home for a 2-0 lead after Paul Gaustad’s bid caromed off the iron.

Entering regulation’s final frame down by two goals, the Lightning responded in the third, and quickly.

Brett Connolly cut the home team’s lead in half under two minutes into the third and Nikita Kucherov’s midair swipe evened the contest at two at the 7:50 mark. With his team’s lead suddenly gone, Nashville Head Coach Peter Laviolette said his club was forced to be resilient once again.

“I liked our response after it was tied,” Laviolette said. “We got going in the last eight minutes and we did not cave which I think is important. Our guys have not caved all year when they are faced with a challenge, and they put their foot on the gas.”

“We have had to do that a bunch this year,” Jones said of the Predators’ late-game response. “I think we have been pretty good in the third period for the most part. We gave up the lead tonight, but that’s just the way it goes with a couple of bounces. I think the second goal got hit out of midair. I thought we did a great job of keeping our composure there. We stayed in it.”

Neal’s goal 4:27 into the extra session tied him for the team lead in goals with 18 and improved the Predators record to 22-3-1 at home. They’ve won 11 out of their last 12 at Bridgestone Arena.

“The fans are so helpful,” Nashville defenseman Anton Volchenkov said. “You can really see how they are the seventh [man]. Every game has been full with [fans] and it’s really loud. Every guy tries to play his best here, and it’s important to have a strong record here now and for the playoffs.”

Overtime Heroes:

Tuesday’s outing was the Predators eighth contest decided in overtime in their 54th game of the season. Neal’s partial breakaway score on Vasilevskiy gave the team a 6-2 record when a game goes beyond 60 minutes and ends before the shootout.

Nashville has found an effective balance of pushing for the win while skating 4-on-4, but not giving their opponent too many quality chances.

Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne says he likes the approach he’s seen in front of him.

“I like the fact that we aren’t trying to defend the five minute [OT] and just try to go to a shootout,” Rinne, who is a spotless 6-0 in games decided in OT, said. “We always try to go for it and try to get the win in OT. I really like that part of it. Personally, I like that part of the game, meaning OT. The shootout is good too, but it’s a little more of a flip of a coin.”

Quality saves from their goaltenders leading to goals off the rush in overtime has proven to be a worthwhile strategy for Nashville in OT. It worked again on Tuesday evening.

“Pekka made a couple big saves in overtime off of redirects that were tricky and hard to handle,” Laviolette said. “A lot of times it ends in transition, you get going one way and then there’s a quick break the other way and you get an opportunity to score.”

Memorable Evening for D-Pairing:

An injury to Preds defenseman Mattias Ekholm in Sunday’s shootout win over Florida led to the recall of Anthony Bitetto from the Milwaukee Admirals prior to Tuesday’s contest.

The Island Park, New York, native played in just his second NHL game and first at Bridgestone Arena, logging 10:09 of ice time and registering his first career fight. A few minutes into the middle period, Bitetto dropped the mitts with Connolly and connected with a few rights before being escorted to the penalty box.

“Bitetto did a good job,” Laviolette said. “He played a lot of minutes and he had to go against quality opposition the entire night. I thought his fight was terrific and well timed and he jumped in there for his teammate. I thought he played a really strong, good game.”

Bitetto’s evening wasn’t the only memorable one, however; the blueliner’s defensive partner for the evening, Victor Bartley, skated in his 100th NHL game. Bartley logged over 14 minutes and recorded two hits in the Predators win.

“It’s been a heck of a ride so far,” Bartley said prior to tonight’s game. “I’m just happy that I’m here with this opportunity, and that I’m able to continue my dream here.”

End Game:

Pekka Rinne now has 31 wins on the season, the most of any NHL goaltender.

Nashville is now 20-1-4 when scoring first. The Preds are also 24-4-6 in one-goal games, tops in the NHL

Colin Wilson, who participated in the morning skate, did not play tonight and was replaced in the lineup by Viktor Stalberg. Wilson is listed as day-to-day.

The Preds have three more games remaining on their current homestand, beginning Thursday with the Winnipeg Jets, before hosting New Jersey on Saturday and San Jose next Tuesday. Nashville is now 22-3-1 at Bridgestone Arena this season.

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