Three consecutive goals for Nashville over a six-minute span set the tone for the visitors, who recorded their 47th victory of the season, and with 102 points, secured their eighth playoff berth in franchise history.
“The guys played hard all year and we put ourselves in a position to clinch at this point in the season,” Head Coach Peter Laviolette said. “I always think it’s a little more meaningful when you earn the win, you earn the two points and the right to get in.”
Mattias Ekholm’s backhand tally right after vacating the penalty box opened the scoring, and Mike Fisher and Forsberg added markers to chase the Caps’ Braden Holtby from the net.
The Capitals cut the Predators lead to 3-2 in the second frame and 4-3 in the third, but they were never able to find the equalizer after Nashville’s three-goal first period. Four goals for the Preds was their greatest output since Feb. 24 against the Avalanche, and proved too much for the Caps.
“Everybody to a man said it wasn’t a great game in Tampa, just from an identity point of view; we knew we could play a better game than that,” Laviolette said. “Our guys played hard tonight. You’ve got to give them a lot of credit because Washington came out ready to play. They kept fighting when it was a tight game.”
Saturday’s victory provided the Preds a season sweep of the Capitals and their former head coach Barry Trotz, but most importantly, it punched Nashville’s playoff ticket for the first time in three seasons.
“It feels good,” forward Craig Smith said of the Preds clinching a postseason berth. “That’s what we wanted to do all year; it was one of our goals and we hit it. So that has to make you pretty happy.”
Dance Card Punched:
With their 4-3 win over Washington, the Preds reserved their spot in the greatest spectacle in sports: the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
While the team certainly still has even larger goals in mind, like claiming their first-ever division or conference title, winning to claim their spot in the playoffs with six games left in the regular season, frankly, felt pretty good.
“We have to be proud and happy about clinching the playoffs,” goaltender Pekka Rinne said. “It’s been a long year and we’ve been playing extremely well and consistent hockey. Not getting in the last two years was extremely disappointing, and so it feels good to be back in.”
Rinne’s 25 saves prevented the Caps from rallying on Saturday and his fourth-straight win was his NHL-leading 41st of the year. After battling injuries the last pair of campaigns, in which Nashville was left out of the postseason, Rinne’s return to form has corresponded to a resurgence for his team as a whole.
“Rinne is synonymous with us being successful,” Nashville General Manager David Poile said earlier in the month. “The last two years, with Rinne not being at 100 percent, we didn’t make the playoffs either time. This year, he comes back, he’s the ‘old Pekka’ if you will, and now our team is not only back in the playoffs but one of the best teams in the NHL.”
The Preds know that it won’t be easy the rest of the way, beginning on Sunday with a club that is desperate to do everything they can secure their own spot in the postseason.
“Everybody in our division wins every night, so we’ve got to keep winning, keep playing,” Laviolette said. “We’ve got another one tomorrow, it’ll be quick. By the time we get to the plane, we’ve got to be thinking about tomorrow because Calgary is pretty hungry.”
“I think we’re right there, we’re right near the top,” Rinne said of continuing to push for a division crown. “It’s pretty much in our own hands if we take care of the games. That’s for sure our goal, and that’s what we’re eyeing for.”
Forsberg, Ekholm Burn Caps:
Two Swedes helped push the Predators out to a 3-0 lead with two impressive goals in the game’s first 15 minutes.
Moments after emerging from the penalty box, Mattias Ekholm picked up the puck from the Caps Curtis Glencross, then went wide on Mike Green before beating Braden Holtby over the glove with a backhander. The tally was the seventh of the season for the blueliner, who also scored on another impressive individual effort earlier in the week against Montreal
“That’s just what he does right now,” Forsberg said of Ekholm’s scoring prowess. “If he scores, it’s probably going to be highlight reel. It’s a lot of fun to watch him play.”
Not to be outdone by his countryman, Forsberg then factored into the next three Nashville goals. The 20-year-old assisted on the Predators second and fourth goals, but it was his blistering wrist shot at 14:47 of the first that blew by the Capitals goaltender and put an exclamation point on the visitors’ start to the game.
A 2012 first-round pick of the Capitals that was traded to Nashville a year later, Forsberg regained the rookie scoring lead with his trio of points in the arena he originally seemed destined to play in on a regular basis.
“It’s always fun to help the team win,” Forsberg said. “Coming here, it’s a little extra special playing here for the first time. It was a good team effort, and I’m really happy we could come out with two points.”
With the victory, the Preds became the first Western Conference team to clinch a spot in the postseason, only to be joined by the Anaheim Ducks just minutes later, thanks to their win over the New York Islanders. Nashville still leads the Central Division with 102 points and trails Anaheim by just one point.
The Preds are now just eight away from tying the franchise record for points in a season with 110. Nashville has only six games remaining in the regular season, four of them at Bridgestone Arena.
With a helper on Filip Forsberg’s goal, Mike Ribeiro is now just two assists away from 500 for his NHL career. Ribeiro and Forsberg share the team-lead for points with 59, while Forsberg and Craig Smith are now tied for the team lead in goals with 23.
Captain Shea Weber missed his first game of the season with a lower-body injury and is listed as day-to-day. Anton Volchenkov took Weber’s spot in the lineup, while Roman Josi served as a third alternate captain with Weber out. Forwards Matt Cullen, James Neal and Eric Nystrom also remain out with injuries.
2014 first-round draft pick Kevin Fiala was reassigned to the Milwaukee Admirals prior to the contest, after being recalled on an emergency basis the day before.
The Predators will wrap up their final back-to-back set of games this season with a 4 p.m. (CT) tilt with the Calgary Flames on Sunday in Nashville.