The Predators first and only coach for the opening 15 seasons of the franchise, Trotz visited Bridgestone Arena for the inaugural time as an opponent. Two Preds goals in the final five minutes of regulation spoiled the Capitals and Trotz’s chance at pulling off an impressive road win, however.
The 4-3 final marked Nashville’s 18th home victory of the season and goaltender Carter Hutton’s first win on the campaign.
The Predators jumped out a two-goal advantage early in the second period, but a pair of blistering shots from Alex Ovechkin tied the contest in under three minutes.
"He’s a shooter, that’s for sure,” Hutton said of Ovechkin. “Those were pretty heavy. The one was almost an impossible angle. You always recognize when he’s on the ice, and I think both of them, the second one was definitely like a knuckleball but that’s what he does. He’s a goal scorer, he’s got a heavy shot and tonight he beat me twice, but it’s one of those ones you kind of move on."
Early in the third period, the Caps tallied their second power-play goal of the night, this time on a rebound chance for Marcus Johansson to take a 3-2 lead. After giving up three-straight goals, the Predators went to work to chip away the deficit against Washington’s whole-team defensive system.
"I think our team has found a way to win all year, whether we are tied going into the third period, or we’ve held onto a lead, or we’ve lost a lead and won it in overtime,” Predators Head Coach Peter Laviolette said. “I think our best moments were when it became 3-2 and from that point on, for the rest of the game, the guys pressed and pushed and got involved in the rush. I really like the fact that there was a lot of confidence when it was 3-2."
After Mattias Ekholm’s man-advantage marker tied the game at three apiece, Neal stole the puck from Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen and put the Predators ahead with 100 seconds left.
“We all feel it in here,” Ekholm said. “It’s a group with so much character and we’ve been battling back from deficits in the third before. We just stick with it and then we get the power-play goal and then the lucky bounce, but I still think we always feel like we’re going to come back. If we keep working hard then we’ll be rewarded.”
Filling in for the injured Pekka Rinne, Hutton notched 31 saves for the victory and two points that gave the Predators sole possession of first place in the NHL and a six-point lead in the Central Division.
"The fans were outstanding tonight,” Laviolette said. “Right from the start, they were incredible. You could feel the energy in the building. And to end it the way it did, that stuff is just great. Our players love it, our fans love it and it was a good night in the building."
Hutton in the Win Column:
Preds goaltender Carter Hutton was firm in his resolve when asked about the challenge of filling the void left by Rinne in the Nashville crease.
The goaltender said he’d prepared each day for this very opportunity. Besides, when Rinne missed 51 games in 2013-14, the 29-year-old in his second NHL season, filled in pretty well.
“I pride myself on working hard and trying to develop my game,” Hutton said. “Me and [Predators Goaltending Coach] Ben Vanderklok work very hard, and he’s finding ways for me to evolve my game....I think the whole time I wasn’t playing I was trying to set up for moments like this.”
Stepping in for his first start of the season on home ice, the goalie was anxious to register his first win after dropping his initial five appearances in spot starts. Stopping Ovechkin during a Caps 3-on-1 to keep the Preds within one was just a single instance of Hutton’s resiliency and ability to guide the home team to a comeback win.
“When we go down 3-2 at that point, it’s trying to make sure it stays there,” Hutton said. “We go down by two and that changes everything. So I think trying to be mentally tough is [important], you have to put it behind you and be ready to move on. You can’t change what’s happened, so I try to stay in the moment and stop pucks.”
“That’s the first thing I thought when the final buzzer went, was that it was nice for [Hutton] to get his first win and get that out of the way,” Ekholm said. “I think we all saw last year what he’s capable of and it’s been a [tough start] for him this year. But he’s still been battling and he’s been awesome to have around here.”
Nashville’s bench boss complimented Hutton and the team’s response to adversity after dropping a two-goal lead.
“I like both responses, from Hutton and the team,” Laviolette said. “Once the Capitals went up 3-2, that was the shining moment for our team. From that point on in, we were on the attack the entire time. Their goaltender made some good saves to keep it from getting tied earlier, but I just liked the way we pressed and pushed.”
“I feel like I’ve been confident in my game, but sometimes there are things I can’t control,” said Hutton. “So I just keep battling and doing my thing and it’s nice to get a home win here. Especially without Peks, I think this is a big win for the guys just confidence-wise.”
Trotz Comes Home:
For 15 seasons and nearly 1,200 regular season games, Barry Trotz managed the Predators from an infant expansion team to a playoff perennial.
Friday was an emotional one for the Caps coach, who not only saw former players, family and friends, but walked back into the building that houses the only NHL franchise he’d been a part of for nearly two decades.
“This is home; this is where our kids are,” Trotz said prior to the game. “This [move] sort of re-energized myself, I think it also re-energized the Preds and that’s the best of both worlds. I think both teams are doing pretty well. So you say did it work out for both? I’d say yes, absolutely.”
When the Predators honored the coach during the first period, it was evident that the two teams on the ice were involved in something worth a little bit more than just a regular season game.
“Every time I walked out there the fans were great, so I want to thank them,” Trotz said. “They were tremendous to me tonight. The tribute showed class, which the Predators continue to show, and I am very proud to have been a part of the organization for a long time. It was a good hockey game.”
Still, the battle on the ice spotlighted two of the NHL’s hottest clubs over the past two months and as the game went on, the pace and intensity only heated up. When Neal slipped the puck past Braden Holtby in the third, the memorable day closed in something Trotz had seen so many times before: a Predators win.
“I thought we took a poor penalty, and once they got it tied up, I have been in this building many times, you can get a lot of energy,” said Trotz. “I felt we should have gotten a point, but that is the magic of this building right now. There is a reason they are 18-2-1. They are a very tough team to play against.”
“It’s obviously a huge game, and I think it just shows our character in this room,” Hutton said. “We go down 3-2 and I don’t think anybody doubted it. We were going to get our chances... we stuck to our game plan and it paid off.”
With two goals on the night, Neal is now tied with Filip Forsberg for the team lead in goals with 15. Nashville is 17-1-2 when scoring first and 12-1-2 when tied after two periods. The Preds are also 19-4-4 in one-goal games. With an assist tonight, Mike Fisher is riding a five-game point streak.
Nashville has now won seven-consecutive home games, just one shy of tying the franchise record of eight-straight victories in the Music City. Tonight was Barry Trotz’s first time coaching at Bridgestone Arena in 278 days.
The Predators face the Red Wings in Detroit on Saturday night at 6 p.m. (CT).