On Hockey Fights Cancer night at Bridgestone Arena, the Nashville Predators outlasted the Winnipeg Jets 2-1 in a tight, defensive contest.
With both teams holding top three defenses in average-goals-against in the NHL, the contest promised to feature tight-checking with few chances allowed.
The two clubs more than obliged.
Stiff neutral zone play from either side produced a slow-paced outing that saw Nashville forward Craig Smith pot the game-winner with two minutes remaining in regulation.
“There were not a lot of attempts at either net, there was no room through the neutral zone either way,” Preds Head Coach Peter Laviolette said. “We knew it was the type of hockey they were playing based on their record and having played them recently. It was hard to get to the neutral zone and the front of the net and I think that went both ways. I was happy to see the way we came out and played defensively. We kept pushing, and even when the game was tied, we were throwing shots at the net. It was great that Craig was able to [convert].”
Almost half the game had ticked away before the Jets struck first with Blake Wheeler’s shorthanded goal that beat Preds goaltender Pekka Rinne high over the shoulder.
The home team responded to being down early by more than doubling their shot total from the first period in the second, but finding the equalizer continued to be elusive.
“I thought we had parts of the game where we played well and did what we wanted to do, but there were definitely parts of the game tonight where we got out played and got away from our game plan,” Jets forward Bryan Little said. “Especially in the second period, I thought they outplayed us. We didn’t execute what we wanted to do.”
The turning point for Nashville came on the Preds response to a disallowed Mike Ribeiro score with five minutes remaining in the second period. The tally was taken back after a good goal was called on the ice due to James Neal touching the puck with a high stick on the opposite side of the crease from Ribeiro.
On the ensuing faceoff in the neutral zone, Ribeiro pushed the puck into the Jets zone, regained the biscuit and then sent a feed to Neal who one-timed a puck past Ondrej Pavelec from the high slot.
“Yeah I think it might have been the turning point,” Smith said. “Having the [goal] disallowed kind of built them up. If you’re on the ice for that goal, it’s a relief when it’s waved off and they probably felt pretty good. But anytime you can score right off the bat that’s huge. That was a big goal.”
“It was an important goal to get one that counted, for a second I thought they were going to call offsides on that one,” Ribeiro said. “That was big for Neal to get us right back to even after having one taken away. Usually you kind of go down for a minute after something like that. We were able to score right away though and keep ourselves in the game and that gave us chance to win.”
The long-range strike tied the contest for Nashville, a mere eight seconds after it appeared they’d been thwarted on their bid to find a first goal. Answering so soon after a potentially demoralizing call gave new life to the Preds who had been repeatedly forced into making mistakes in the neutral zone prior to breaking through late in the middle frame.
Finally, with 2:02 left in the third, Smith converted from a sharp angle after center Calle Jarnkrok fed him the puck from the high slot.
“I was off to the side so the shot in the middle was taken away and the [goalie] went down so I had it at the side of the goal,” said Smith. “He went down and it was on my stick before he could recover and all I wanted to do was hit the net.”
The victory was the Predators second in three meetings with the Jets through 17 games. The two divisional rivals have scored no more than three goals in each game. In the trio of matchups, Nashville has shown an ability to succeed in defensively-focused contests when called upon, such as on Saturday.
Tonight’s contest marked the end of nine-consecutive games against Western Conference opponents for the Preds. They’ll now start a string of three-straight against clubs from the East including their first visit to the Eastern Time Zone on Tuesday to face the Maple Leafs.
“It’ll be nice to have a break and go up north and east to face some teams,” Ribeiro said “It’s always fun to play teams like the Leafs and Ottawa. Kind of interesting to go back on the road for another trip, but if we play our best, we’ll be ready.”