The Nashville Predators scored a franchise-record six goals during the second period in goaltender Tomas Vokoun's return from injury Saturday night, paving the way to a 7-3 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets at the Gaylord Entertainment Center. Nashville's energy line of Jerred Smithson, Darcy Hordichuk and Jordin Tootoo figured on a trio of Predators goals, and defenseman Dan Hamhuis registered three assists.
"I think we really dominated," said Hordichuk, who was named the game's first star and coincidentally was the subject of a promotional poster giveaway at the game. "That's what we need. We've got a lot of guys out of the lineup, and we said enough excuses here. We're the only guys who can step up and do something. It starts from the fourth to the first line. We had a good effort today."
The victory improves the Predators' record to 20-7-3 overall and a perfect 7-0-1 against teams in their own division. Nashville has collected 20 wins in just 30 games this season--12 games faster than the club's previous best set in 2003-04.
Vokoun, who is now tied for second among NHL goalies in wins despite missing the better part of the previous four games with a knee strain, was not expected to start Saturday. "Tomas dug in and surprised us a little bit and said, 'I want to be in. I want the net. Let's get going,' " Predators head coach Barry Trotz said. "We were probably not planning to play him, but he's a warrior and that's why he's a big part of our hockey team."
Despite skating well and generating many scoring opportunities both on the power play and at even strength, the Predators fell behind in the first period. Columbus' Rick Nash netted a power-play goal--his first tally of an injury-plagued season--at 12:34 to put his club ahead 1-0. The lead would hold up through the first intermission, but a long-distance goal from Tootoo 43 seconds into the second period tied the game. The recent call-up from Nashville's American Hockey League affiliate fired the puck from mid-ice as he headed to the bench for a line change, but the shot got past Columbus goaltender Marc Denis.
"I didn't see what happened at all," Tootoo said of the play. "I just shot the puck, a kind of on-the-net play. I was pretty much going off and I just heard everyone go crazy. You're bound to get a couple lucky goals, and fortunately that was one of them."
After the goal, a visibly upset Denis stood, turned and took a two-handed swing at the left post with his goal stick, which snapped on impact. He then slung the broken stick toward the Columbus bench before awkwardly kicking the elusive puck out of the net with his right skate.
"I thought in the first period we could have had three or four goals," Trotz said. "We didn't capitalize on our chances and then we sort of get a little bit of a lucky one--a hard shot from Tootoo and it squeezed through the legs of Denis and that sort of got things rolling for us. I thought we skated a little bit better in the second period, even better than the first. And we created some power plays and wore them down a little bit."
Nashville forward Steve Sullivan created one of those power plays at 4:24 of the second, moments after he was struck by a hard clearing attempt that sent him to the bench doubled-over in pain. After a visit to the locker room, Sullivan emerged from the hallway behind the Predators' bench and stepped directly on the ice. Within seconds he had drawn a hooking penalty on ex-Predator Cale Hulse. Nashville defenseman Marek Zidlicky pinched to attempt a one-time shot on the ensuing power play, but when his swing failed to connect with the puck, Columbus was off on an odd-man break in the other direction. Trevor Letowski skated the puck up the right wing and centered toward teammate Jan Hrdina barreling down the slot. Hrdina extended his stick and redirected the puck past Vokoun to put the Blue Jackets up 2-1 at 6:03.
Hrdina's short-handed goal restored the lead for Denis, but only temporarily. Twenty-seven seconds later, the floodgates opened for the Predators.
Four ticks after Hulse's penalty expired, Kris Beech netted his first as a Predator. Paul Kariya worked the puck down low to Sullivan left of the Columbus net. Sullivan stickhandled in place to shake a defender, then put the puck across the crease to Beech at the other post for an easy conversion. "Two great passes," Beech said of the plays that set the table for him. "Paul to Sully and then... Sully's pass was right on my tape. Wide open net, so it's hard to miss those ones."
Three minutes later Beech sent the puck from the right corner of Columbus' zone to Zidlicky at the top of the right circle. Zidlicky's blast cut through traffic and Denis to put Nashville ahead 3-2 at 9:33. Less than a minute later, the Predators went back on the power play and a second Blue Jackets penalty gave Nashville a 55-second five-on-three manpower advantage. The power-play unit was unable to convert before the first penalty expired, but another trip to the box for Hulse put the Predators back on the five-on-three at 13:06. Fourteen seconds later, Sullivan--who recently referred to two-man advantages as "gimmes" that a team must cash in on--took a Zidlicky pass at the left side of the net and watched as his centering feed deflected off a Columbus defenseman and past Denis. Nashville led 4-2.
Center Yanic Perreault extended the lead to 5-2 at 15:13, after adroitly vacating the right side of the Columbus net--moving away from puck carrier Martin Erat in the right circle--to curl behind for a wide-open backdoor tap-in at the left post. The Predators, who had never scored more than four goals in a period, then added their sixth on a play that started deep within their own zone. Defenseman Mark Eaton cleared the puck up the left boards to start the play, and Tootoo made a key hit on a Blue Jackets player along the wall to allow the puck to slip past and out of the zone. Hordichuk picked it up in the neutral zone and carried it up the left wing in a two-on-one with Smithson. The lone d-man stuck with Smithson but was unable to prevent him from redirecting the puck into the net.
"It went off my skate," Smithson said of his second goal of the season. "I just went hard to the net and I stopped on the net and was lucky enough to [have it] just bounce right off my skate. I definitely didn't try to kick it in."
Per NHL rules, a player can deflect a puck into the net with his skate, but is not allowed to kick it in. The play was reviewed by the video goal judge but was ultimately determined to be a legitimate goal.
Following the six-goal explosion, the Blue Jackets started the third period with goaltender Pascal Leclaire between the pipes. Two early Columbus penalties gave the Predators back-to-back power plays, but they wouldn't get their seventh goal until Hamhuis spotted Hordichuk behind the defense and delivered the puck to him. The 6'1", 215-pound winger who leads the team in penalty minutes skated in alone and slid the puck through Leclaire's legs to put Nashville up 7-2 at 7:22 of the third.
"I was trying to go five hole," Hordichuk said. "In practice we always fool around. I got some advice from some of the guys over here--Marty Erat and a couple of the other boys there. I've been working on my breakaway move. I never thought I'd have one for another 10 years, but today I had it and I buried it."
With the game all but decided, Nashville stumbled into a bit of penalty trouble midway through the period and then had to face a penalty shot after a Predator closed his hand on the puck in the crease at 14:50. Columbus' David Vyborny capitalized on the opportunity, going from his backhand to his forehand and beating Vokoun to his glove side to set the eventual final score, 7-3.
For the game, Vokoun stopped 23 of 26 Columbus shots. "I felt a little bit shaky at the start," he said. "I felt pretty good in the third period. It's never easy coming back from injury. It's kind of still in my head a little bit. There are a couple days to work on it and hopefully it's going to improve.
"[The injury] doesn't affect me as much playing-wise, but more psychologically," he added. "You have a guy driving the net from the side and you're going down and he's going in to run you over and you're on your knees and you have a bad knee.... It's just a weird feeling. No matter how brave you are you just have that feeling in you. It's human nature to try to kind of protect yourself."
The Smithson, Hordichuk and Tootoo line combined for five points and were rewarded with power play time in game's waning moments.
"They deserved it," Trotz said. "At that point the game was well in hand, but they deserve that. That was a reward factor for them. They came out and got us some big goals. They gave us lots of energy, kept the game real simple, drew some penalties. All of them deserved to get a little bit of reward. Sometimes you can't reward them other than ice time and give them a special team [assignment]. As we said the guys are put out there in the last power play, with [defensemen Danny] Markov and [Mark] Eaton. They said they had three scoring chances in 10 seconds. They said that might be a record, so they said maybe we've got the wrong guys out there."
The Predators have one more home game in 2005, and it's Tuesday night against the Colorado Avalanche. Tickets are still available for that game and can be ordered by calling (615) 770-PUCK, ordering online or visiting the Gaylord Entertainment Center box office or any Ticketmaster outlet. The game, which starts at 7 p.m. and airs on OLN, will be the only Predators game televised nationally in the U.S. this season.
Notes: Twelve different players registered points for the Predators Saturday night... Jordin Tootoo's 89-foot goal against Columbus was his first tally as a Predator this season... Dan Hamhuis' three assists in Saturday's game gave him his third multi-point game--and first three-point game--of the season... Darcy Hordichuk posted a goal and an assist for the first multi-point game of his NHL career... Yanic Perreault's power-play goal gives him 2 goals and 2 assists in his last three games... The six goals scored by Nashville in the second period are the most goals scored in one period by the Predators in franchise history. The previous record was four... Nashville improves to 15-3-0 at home and 11-3-1 when the opponent scores first... Steve Sullivan's power-play goal in the second period gives the Predators at least one power-play goal in 15 of their last 16 games. Sullivan's goal was also his third game-winning goal of the season... The Predators wore their gold alternate jerseys Saturday and are now 6-1-0 when doing so... Steve Sullivan has overtaken Paul Kariya for the team's points lead. Sullivan has collected 14 goals and 14 assists for 28 points; Kariya, who posted an assist Saturday, has 10 goals and 17 assists on the season... Sullivan registered 7 shots, tying his season high... Nashville dominated the face-off circle against Columbus, winning 67 percent of the draws... The Predators have scored a total of 9 second-period goals in their last two games... Nashville was 1 of 9 on the power play Saturday, and successfully killed off three of the Jackets' four PP chances... David Vyborny's third-period penalty shot was the first Nashville has faced this season and the 16th in franchise history. Vyborny becomes only the sixth player in franchise history to score against the Predators on a penalty shot... Saturday night's attendance at the Gaylord Entertainment Center was 16,020.
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