Twelve hours before the Nashville Predators arrived at the airport for their flight to San Jose, Mike Fisher was depositing the puck into the net at 11:12 of the third overtime in the longest game in Preds franchise history.
The Game Four result, a contest that will go down as one of the greatest Predators games of all time, evened Nashville’s series with the Sharks at 2-2 as things shift back to Northern California. And while the heroics of early Friday morning weren’t completely forgotten by later that afternoon, the postseason mentality of leaving the past and focusing on the present was at the forefront.
“I’m over it, I’m past it,” Head Coach Peter Laviolette said wryly of Game Four. “We have a lot of work to do. We haven’t really done anything, we’ve given ourselves a chance, and we have to finish or it means nothing. Our guys have to be ready to play. It won’t be easy.”
The Preds didn’t have an easy go of things during the last visit to San Jose, a sweep for the Sharks to take a 2-0 series lead before the club came home and won both outings at Bridgestone Arena. A victory in triple overtime could be demoralizing for the loser, but Laviolette – who is celebrating his two-year anniversary as head coach on Friday - was quick to caution on what the win means for the series.
“I don’t necessarily believe in momentum in the playoffs; I think it works against you,” Laviolette said. “We have to go in there knowing that we’re going into a tough place to play. They’re a good hockey team. The guys have a lot of confidence in what we do and how we play the game, but we have to go in there and do the work now.”
Getting the proper rest at this time of the year is tough enough for a hockey player. Add in an extra 50 minutes to the 60 that are required, and the body feels the results. When Game Four ended in the early hours of Friday morning, the Preds essentially had a game to prepare for the next night. Couple that with another cross-country flight to California, and getting some shut-eye was at the top of the list.
“It’s tough, it's emotional, it's draining for everybody; the fans, the players, the coaches, the media, but it’s a terrific feeling to be a part of something like that,” Laviolette said. “It makes you feel alive. It’s hard to just shut down like that, but I’m sure everybody went to bed at some point.”
“It’s going to be tough, but just hydrate, do everything you can, try to get to sleep early and try to get some sleep on the plane,” winger James Neal said. “But that was quite the atmosphere last night, and one I think that a lot of guys will never forget. That being said, it’s behind us now, and we get ready for tomorrow. It’s going to be a battle again.”
Goaltender Pekka Rinne remarked after Game Four he was willing to play as long as it took to get a win. Appending the recent triple-overtime victory to Nashville’s Game Seven triumph over Anaheim in Round One, means the Preds have certainly had their share of magical moments in a playoff run they hope is far from over.
“It’s just every guy stepping up and wanting to win for each other,” Neal said. “It’s a special group. You battle all year and when you go through the playoffs, you go through different games, there’s going to be different guys stepping up. There’s going to be great moments… This is a lot of fun, and we have a lot of character guys in that locker room. Nobody wants to be done.”
“It’s exciting, and there’s no better spot to be in than Nashville,” rookie defenseman Anthony Bitetto said. “I’m excited, and I’m happy to be here. There’s a lot of emotions, and it’s something every kid dreams about, playing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Things are coming together, and it’s another chapter right now, hopefully on our way to the Cup.”
The sense of jubilation on the Nashville bench was evident once the puck crossed the goal line just after 1 a.m. local time. There was Assistant Coach Kevin McCarthy, jumping up and down with excitement. Head Equipment Manager Pete Rogers looking to the sky. Goaltender Carter Hutton jumping impressively into the air in full equipment.
But perhaps most noticeable is Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen simultaneously falling over the boards, perhaps too excited – and exhausted – to hit the ice upright.
In the moment, it was chaos. But defenseman Anthony Bitetto was prepared.
“I told myself when we score, I wanted to be the first one over the bench,” Bitetto said. “It was kind of close, I don’t know if I got it, but at least I landed on my feet, I guess. But that’s the excitement, and that’s the joy the fans bring and that we’re bringing. It’s exciting to be a part of right now.”