Photo by John Russell
The team congratulates Chris Mason for winning his first home start of the season.
Two players who have spent a lot of time on the sidelines this season got the call and delivered key performances in the Nashville Predators' 4-2 victory over the St. Louis Blues Monday night at the Gaylord Entertainment Center. Forward Scott Nichol, who has missed 34 games this year due to injury and was a healthy scratch as recently as last Thursday, scored twice, and goaltender Chris Mason, who has the unenviable task of backing up workhorse netminder Tomas Vokoun, made 28 saves to win his first home start of the season.
Paul Kariya and Kimmo Timonen added power-play goals in the win, which completed a sweep of the club's four-game homestand and improved Nashville's overall record to 41-19-8. The Predators have not lost in regulation in nine games, and will attempt to extend that streak when they travel to Detroit for a showdown with the Red Wings Tuesday night.
Mason, who improved his record to 6-4-1 on the season, saw his first game action since a March 1 loss in Chicago. "Chris did a wonderful job in terms of preparing himself," Predators head coach Barry Trotz said. "It's very difficult to not play in such a long time and be as sharp as he was. You don't get the traffic in practice as you do in a game. Things don't happen the same way. There are bodies flying, bumping into you, all those things."
"At the start I was kind of jittery and nervous and you just want to try so hard and do so well," Mason said. "But once you get a couple shots and you kind of get into the game and start sweating a little bit, it felt pretty good."
The offensive production at the opposite end undoubtedly helped settle Mason's nerves as well. Nichol, who tallied his first goal as a Predator Saturday against Calgary, was instrumental in getting the early jump on the Blues.
"Personally it's been a long year," said Nichol, who has had four separate injuries this season and had been a healthy scratch for three of Nashville's previous eight games. "But the team is doing so well and we've got so many guys that can step up and do the job. It's great to be a part of it."
"When you're injured and you miss a lot of time, sometimes you don't have the ability to have some success," Trotz said. "But [Nichol] works really hard. He's all about team.... A couple games when we needed big goals--tonight, the other night against Calgary--he got some big goals for us at timely times."
Nichol's first tally Monday came 12:50 into the opening period. Scott Hartnell carried the puck from the right corner of the Blues zone toward the back of the net, then stopped hard and skated back up the boards. He sent the puck to Paul Kariya in the slot, and Kariya in turn fired a pass toward Nichol standing at the left post. The puck hit Nichol's stick, then shin pad before going into the net. The goal was reviewed by officials for several minutes to determine if Nichol had illegally kicked the puck into the net, but was ultimately credited to the 5'8", 173-pound forward as his second of the season.
"I knew I didn't have a kicking motion, but you never know," Nichol said of the review. "Guys in my position, it seems like they always take the goal away from them," he said with a chuckle.
Photo by John Russell
Nashville's Darcy Hordichuk fights Barret Jackman, who was given a 10-minute misconduct penalty for instigating the bout early in the first period.
Earlier in the period, Nichol's linemate Darcy Hordichuk delivered a crunching open-ice hit on Blues defenseman Christian Backman, who was bringing the puck out of the St. Louis zone. Backman's teammate Barrett Jackman attacked Hordichuk in response and slapped with a minor penalty for instigating and a 10-minute misconduct in addition to the five-minute fighting majors assessed to each combatant. After the game, Hordichuk claimed to have landed a good shot early in the bout, which featured a lot of swings before the two players effectively neutralized each other with good jersey holds. Jackman never returned to the game, reportedly due to a broken jaw.
"I think it was quite important," Trotz said of Hordichuk's hit and the ensuing scrap. "It got them down to five [defensemen]. Jackman's a big part of it. 'Hordi' plays the same against everybody. That's why he's a very effective player.
"Tonight I think he had a couple big hits and Jackman went after him and instigated, and 'Hordi' went toe-to-toe with him," Trotz added. "Jackman got a...misconduct. That sends a big message to your bench and also to the other bench."
The 1-0 lead stood until early into the second period, when Nichol scored again to push the margin to two goals. His reaction to a bounce off an opposing player resulted in a short-handed breakaway tally at 4:08. "[Timonen] tried to hit me up the middle [with a pass]," Nichol said. "I thought he was trying after [Steve Sullivan]. It hit, I think, [St. Louis' Scott] Young and he threw it and hit [teammate Keith] Tkachuk in the chest. It just laid there. I had the momentum going forward, and we had a little bit of scouting on the goalie. We knew he was going to go down. [Earlier] Steve Sullivan made a nice move on him and he kicked his pad out, so I knew I needed to get it upstairs. I put it upstairs."
While Nashville's penalty killers accounted for the second goal, the Predators power play added the next two. It only took the special teams unit 15 seconds to make St. Louis pay for Dallas Drake's interference penalty, as Paul Kariya capped a quick zig-zag passing play to make it 3-0 at 5:40. The crisp puck movement originated from the stick of Marek Zidlicky high in the zone. He passed to Sullivan along the left wall, who in turn threaded the puck across the slot to Kariya on the doorstep at the right of the Blues goal. Kariya took a moment to measure Blues goaltender Patrick Lalime before beating him with a point-blank shot.
The power play struck again at 14:14 of the second period, with Keith Tkachuk off for slashing. Timonen's shot from the left point sailed through traffic in front, including a screen by Predator Adam Hall that prevented Lalime from seeing the oncoming puck.
Meanwhile, Mason had been keeping the Blues off the scoreboard with big saves. In what was arguably his best of the night, Mason tracked a pass from Jamal Mayers at his left to Trent Whitfield at the opposite edge of the crease. The goaltender executed a lateral move that put his right leg pad in position to stone Whitfield on a golden opportunity midway through the second period.
"I just saw the puck pretty good and I was just trying to follow it and get my body there," Mason said. "Sometimes it hits you and that's what you want."
Teammates were clearly digging in for the backup goalie, blocking shots and passes to limit the number of threatening chances.
As the second period drew to a close, Mason made a nice kick save on Timofei Shishkanov then robbed Mark Rycroft seconds later, leaving the winger looking incredulously toward the ceiling. A penalty to Brendan Witt at 17:56 increased the pressure on Mason, who got a piece of a Dennis Wideman one-timer and made a pad save on Scott Young before Young put a one-timer past the Nashville netminder just as the penalty expired. The goal, coming with four seconds left in the middle period, spoiled the shutout bid, but Mason was greeted with an ovation from the crowd for his efforts to that point. Later in the game, chants of "Mason! Mason!" filled the arena.
Photo by John Russell
Preds forward Jerred Smithson and Blues forward Trent Whitfield prepare to face off.
"I really appreciate that," Mason said of the fan reaction. "It was the first time I've played here all year. It was awesome to kind of have the game go like that. Especially when they were chanting my name. That made me feel pretty cool."
The Predators had the better chances in the third, as St. Louis took risks on offense that left them vulnerable to odd-man rushes. As a result, Nashville outshot the Blues 16-7 in the final 20 minutes. When Wideman was sent to the box for holding at 17:32, Trotz put Nichol on the ice for the entire power play and teammates repeatedly attempted to set him up for a third goal.
"I tried to get it," Nichol said of his hat trick bid. "It would have been nice. It was good. I was out there on the power play. I don't really get to play power play too often. It was nice to try and handle the puck. I sit there and watch it enough so hopefully I knew some of the plays."
Seven seconds after the power play ended and 21 seconds before the final buzzer, St. Louis scored to make it 4-2. While Nichol and other Predators were upset that they yielded a late goal, it didn't damper the enthusiasm surrounding Mason's performance.
"Chris was great tonight," said Kariya, who posted a goal and assist. "He works so hard. I'm really happy for him, that he came and got the win. He doesn't get the chance to show how good he is out there. But when he does he's an incredible goalie and we're really fortunate to have him."
Trotz seemed happy with the overall effort as well, as the Predators continue to build momentum in the final weeks of the regular season.
"Tonight our sort of feisty energy line got us a couple goals," the head coach said. "Our skill guys are the guys that make it happen on a power play--they got a couple goals tonight. Those are real key elements. You're not always going to win one way. You're going to have to find ways to win."
Notes: The Predators have won four in a row--outscoring those opponents by a combined total of 20-6--and are 7-0-2 in their last nine. They have registered six straight home wins and are now 27-6-1 at the GEC... Nashville tallied two more power-play goals and is now six-for-20 with the man-advantage over the last three games. The club has 79 power-play goals on the season... Scott Nichol registered the first two-goal game of his career. His second goal was his first short-handed goal of the season and the third of his career. Nashville now has 12 short-handed goals on the season and four in the last nine games... Steve Sullivan posted an assist to extend his points streak to seven games. He has 13 points during the streak (3g-10a)... Paul Kariya collected a goal and an assist for a total of five points (3g-2a) in his last two games. His 69 points for the season establish a new team record, surpassing Scott Walker who had 67 points in 2003-04... Kimmo Timonen scored to reach the 10-goal mark for the fourth time in his last five seasons... Martin Erat posted an assist for his 40th point of the season. He has reached 40 points in each of the past two seasons (49 in 2003-04)... Nashville is 26-0-4 when leading after two periods... The Predators are 5-0-0 against St. Louis and 17-5-1 vs. Central Division teams... Nashville has outscored opponents 74-50 in the first period this season... The Predators have registered 88 shots in their last two games (47 vs. Calgary, 41 vs. St. Louis)... Scottie Upshall and Vern Fiddler were scratched for the Predators... Attendance at the GEC was 15,722.
Video: Watch the game highlights (1:32)
Audio: Listen to head coach Barry Trotz's post-game press conference (9:05)
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