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Rinne, Smith Help Preds Dominate Sharks

by Thomas Willis / Nashville Predators

Make it six wins in a row for the NHL-leading Nashville Predators. On Tuesday night, the Preds dominated the San Jose Sharks 5-1 at Bridgestone Arena to complete a perfect four-game home stand and open a six-point lead on the League.

Matt Irwin put the Sharks on top early in the first period, but Nashville answered with two tallies before the horn at the end of the first twenty minutes. The Predators are first in the NHL with 17 wins after giving up the initial goal of a game.

Opening the middle frame with a 2-1 advantage, the Preds scored three more times as Craig Smith netted his second goal of the night, followed by Paul Gaustad less than a minute later and James Neal’s 20th of the campaign at 10:31.

With a four-goal lead to his credit, Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne did the rest, recording 42 total stops and not allowing the Sharks back into the contest. Neal’s marker gave him the team lead in goals and his seventh-straight 20-goal campaign; he’s hit the total in each season of his career.

Ridiculous Rinne:

They say your best player has to be your goaltender when you’re shorthanded. Rinne has clearly heard that one before.

The goalie essentially killed one Sharks power play in the second period singlehandedly.

The Finnish netminder planted his pad on the goal line and denied Logan Couture three times with his left pillow. Unable to get puck into the cage, the Sharks tried again right from the doorstep and were denied by Rinne’s blocker after he left his stick on the ice - easily one of his more spectacular sequences of the season.

“It was just desperation out there,” Rinne said. “The Sharks have a lot of talented players on their first power-play unit and you know they’re going to make some plays. I needed to be a little bit lucky there too. I made a save on [Brent] Burns and then the rebound came to Logan Couture where he had a couple whacks at it. It ended up going over to [Joe] Pavelski and I actually made that save as the whistle was going off.”

“It [makes you] speechless how good he is,” Nashville D-man Anthony Bitetto said of Rinne. “He’s the best goalie in the world and it shows every night. His arm has to be tired with all the T-shirts he throws into the stands (after being named the game’s first star). It’s remarkable having him behind you, even if you miss warm-ups.”

Rinne’s spectacular string of saves highlighted the netminder’s 42 stops and his League-leading 34th win. All in all, the night’s work was just another performance that set up Nashville for a victory - something Rinne does all too often. The 32-year-old is 15-1-1 in his last 17 decisions.

“He was great, there were times when he really just stood on his head,” Nashville Head Coach Peter Laviolette said of Rinne’s play. “There was a flurry on the power play there for San Jose where he made four unbelievable stops in a row and then even one after the whistle for good measure. He was great. He got a couple of standing ovations from our crowd, which was just tremendous. The amount of people who showed up here in this weather was [impressive]. He really played great, he made some great saves.”

Bitetto Arrives Just in Time, Sort of:

Usually being tardy isn’t celebrated.

But for Nashville Predators rookie defenseman Anthony Bitetto, and his “lost” equipment, the team was just excited he was able to take the ice at all. The Island Park, New York, native was recalled from the Milwaukee Admirals on Tuesday, but wasn’t able to make it to Bridgestone Arena prior to puck drop in the Preds 5-1 win over the San Jose Sharks.

A crazy few hours to say the least.

“It started yesterday when I found out I was coming back,” Bitetto said. “I had a flight at 6:15 a.m. yesterday and it got canceled, then 7 a.m. got canceled and then I had one at 11 and it was canceled! It was ridiculous. But sometimes you have to go through adversity like that. I had a pregame meal in the airport for the first time.

“I made the flight and then I get down to baggage claim and it’s probably 5:15 p.m. at this point, and the meeting is about to happen and I’m stressing out not sure what’s going on. They were talking to me throughout the process and I was like, 'my bag’s not here.’ Basically, I finally got my bag and came into the game with like 14 minutes to play in the first. I guess warm-ups aren’t that important.”

Scrambling to join Nashville on the ice, Bitetto first missed warm-ups, then he still wasn’t there when the game began. The Predators played with five defenseman for nearly half of the opening period, often changing D-men one blueliner at a time.

Bitetto emerged from the Predators tunnel at the first TV timeout at 6:26 to find his team trailing 1-0 after Irwin’s goal earlier in the first.

Whether to his credit or not, Nashville rattled off five-straight goals after the D-man balanced out the club’s defensive corps.

“I guess that’s a good sign, right?” Bitetto said with a laugh. “I’m extremely happy to be back here and you never know how long it’s going to be when you’re called up, so it’s been a really good learning experience...I’m really happy we got the win tonight; it was a great effort for the guys.”

“We’ve been trying for what seemed like 30 hours to get him here, and the weather’s got everyone their heels right now, so the fact that he made it here is great,” Laviolette said of Bitetto’s travel schedule. “Once he was in the air, we knew he would be here, we knew his equipment would get here at some point and he would join us in the game.”

End Game:

The Predators home record stands 25-3-1. Despite the ice storm enveloping Music City, more than 8,000 fans attended Tuesday night’s contest.

Nashville forward Mike Ribeiro recorded two helpers versus San Jose and is nine away from 500 for his career.

Anton Volchenkov was placed on Injured Reserved (IR) with a lower-body injury prior to the game; Bitetto took the blueliner’s place in the lineup.

The Predators will not practice on Wednesday before leaving for New York City to begin a three-game road trip that starts on Thursday against the Islanders.

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