The Preds rallied from two, one-goal deficits but were unable to fight through the Wild’s suffocating defense when it mattered most. Minnesota held Nashville to 29 shots and to 0-for-2 on the power play.
“There were parts of the game I thought we could have played better,” Head Coach Peter Laviolette said. “It was close and it was fast in the middle, but we seemed to get lost in the third period. There were some good things we did early on in the game, and definitely things we could have done better. We knew it was going to be a tight game. I think we tried to prepare for a game that was going to be hard fought and could come down to one goal but we lost this one.”
Craig Smith’s finish on a breakaway at 8:31 of the second period knotted the game at 2-2. Nino Niederreiter scored his first of two tallies just over a minute later, however, and put the Wild up for good.
“They were making smart plays and good plays to get it out,” forward Mike Fisher said of Minnesota’s efforts. “Our forecheck wasn’t what it needed to be for whatever reason, but we need to be hungrier and execute better. We weren’t moving the puck and we were missing passes that we shouldn’t be missing.”
Nashville entered the third period trailing at home for just the fifth time this season. Unable to find the equalizer, the Preds dropped to 1-4-0 when down after 40 minutes of play at Bridgestone Arena.
The Wild’s win snapped a stretch of six-consecutive victories for the Predators in their own barn and dropped their home record to 26-4-1. Nashville’s lead on the entire NHL was reduced to four points by a 5-2 Montreal Canadiens win earlier in the evening.
Former Goalie Talks Rinne:
For more than half of the Nashville Predators existence, there was one name that was cheered after jaw-dropping saves and last-second stops. And it wasn’t Pekka Rinne.
An original pick of the Preds in the 1998 Expansion Draft, goaltender Tomas Vokoun spent nine seasons in Nashville. Eight years removed from being the club’s No. 1 netminder, Vokoun sits second in wins with 161 in a Predators uniform.
On Thursday, the former Nashville player returned to Music City to be honored during the Wild and Predators contest. Prior to the game, Vokoun had a few things to say about the Predators current ace between the pipes and his teammate for three seasons.
“He’s had some health problems along the way...and he still is the frontrunner for a lot of the NHL awards,” Vokoun said of Rinne. “He can move like a guy that’s 5-foot-7, and he has all the tools in the toolbox. He’s also a good guy and he works hard. There’s really nothing, but to be happy for him and wish him the best.
“Hopefully, the Preds can keep this great thing they have going into the playoffs and take it as far as they want. When you have a team like this, you want to win the Cup. They have a really, really good shot this year I think.”
The former goalie went on to describe the first time he ever saw the Predators future superstar in net and it didn’t even take game action for him to be impressed.
“When I first saw Pekka it was during the 2004-05 lockout; I saw him in Finland where he was the backup with [Karpat] Oulu-Finland, and he was behind [Minnesota Wild goaltender] Niklas Backstrom,” Vokoun said. “It was the year we drafted him, and I saw him in the warmups and I was like, ‘oh my gosh.’ Back then there were no big goalies like that, that trend was just starting.
“Of course you want to have a big guy in net, he can reach farther, it’s just physics. There was always that, ‘oh they can’t move as fast. They have a big five-hole or whatever.’ So when I saw him, I was [shocked].”
Nashville was 2-0-0 against Minnesota coming into Thursday’s contest with the most recent victory coming by a 3-1 score on Jan. 10, nearly two months ago. Since the clubs’ last get-together, however, the Wild have rallied behind new goalie (and former Predator) Devan Dubnyk.
The Wild went from the outskirts of the postseason hunt to currently the second Wild Card spot behind a 14-3-1 stretch with Dubnyk in the crease. The wakeup call in Minnesota with the goalie’s acquisition has rallied the Wild’s team-defense effort that frustrated Nashville in a 4-2 loss.
The Preds offense did not have its normal pace and push in the third meeting of the season with their Central Division rival.
“We fought back, we got the game to 2-2 and then we kicked one up right away,” Laviolette said. “They are a desperate team and they played that way. I think we could have been better offensively, but I think they [the Wild] played well defensively. There were a lot of sticks in the way, a lot of interrupted plays and that is what they have been doing as of late and how they have been finding success.”
“They played well,” Captain Shea Weber said of the Wild. “They are a good team and they are fighting for their playoff lives. We talked about it before. We knew that they were going to come out with their best effort and they were just better than us tonight.”
Two more meetings, both in Nashville, are on the schedule for the teams with the next contest coming on St. Patrick’s Day.
After missing the Predators previous 21 games with a lower-body injury, Preds blueliner Ryan Ellis was back in the lineup against the Wild. The 24-year-old was playing perhaps the best hockey of his career alongside Mattias Ekholm before going down in a 3-2 win over the Dallas Stars on Jan. 8.
For the first time, Nashville assembled the top-flight D-corps made available with the acquisition of Cody Franson earlier in the month. Seth Jones shifted to the left side in order to accommodate Ellis in his first game back.
“It was a starting point for him to get back out there,” Laviolette said of Ellis. “I think he played 12 minutes or so. It is hard when, in a game like this, when it is a competitive team that is fighting for a playoff spot, there is not a lot of practice time to prepare for that… I think it’s good to get him in there and progress from there.”
Ellis finished with two shots in 11:29 of ice time, perhaps a smaller impact on the game than he desired to have, but a good initial step in what will be a lengthy road back to performing a top level again.
Craig Smith’s second-period beauty was his 20th of the season and his second-straight campaign hitting the total. The forward bounced back with 24 tallies in the 2013-14 season after having four the one prior.
Veteran Matt Cullen assisted on Mike Fisher’s one-time goal only 16 seconds into the middle frame for the 400th helper of his career. The 38-year-old is the oldest player to ever skate for the Predators and had notched 56 points in 124 career games with Nashville.
Gabriel Bourque skated in his 200th career game on Thursday. The 2009 fifth-round pick has logged all of his games at the NHL level in Predators Gold.
The Preds host the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday afternoon in the final contest of the current, three-game home stand. Following the matinee, the Preds and Wings alumni will get together for a game of their own on Bridgestone Arena ice.