It was a homecoming coach Barry Trotz had circled on the calendar, returning to his former team in a building he knows very well. After coaching in Nashville for 15 seasons, the first 15 years of the Predator’s existence in the league, the Predators and their fans honored their longtime bench boss with a heartfelt, pregame video tribute that had Trotz tearing up.
“I had some butterflies going out there,” he said. “You know, a lot of good memories. Obviously, every time I walked out there the fans were so great. The tribute, the class the Predators continues to show. [I’m] very proud to have been a part of their organization for a long time.“
After suffering the loss of their all-star goalie Pekka Rinne, who will be out for the next few weeks with a knee injury, Nashville had Carter Hutton in goal to face off against Washington netminder Braden Holtby. Holtby, making his 21st straight start of the season, is on a roll of his own, with only two regulation losses in the last 20 games.
Unfortunately, Washington would add to that meager total tonight, falling to Nashville 4-3 as the Preds scored two unanswered goals in the final five minutes of the third period.
Matt Niskanen had an unfortunate giveaway with less than two minutes remaining in the period, giving James Neal the chance to score and leaving Niskanen with a lousy feeling after the game.
“I had time to make a play and I make that play five, six times every game,” Niskanen said. “Probably should have put that one off the glass or up the strong side. Or taken it back further and made a more safe play. Hindsight is twenty-twenty … it sucks that I cost us the game on that one.”
Teammate Brooks Laich called the errant play an “unfortunate break” for a player whom he describes as trustworthy with the puck. “Just a little mismanagement at the end of the game,” Laich said.
Marcus Johansson simply summed up the dramatic finish in two words: “it’s hockey.”
“I think it felt like we had the game, just a couple tough breaks to give them the win,” Johansson said. “But it’s hockey and it happens.”
For Trotz, coming back to play the team he once knew so well was a challenge, though not a challenge that surprised him.
“It was a good hockey game,” he said. “I thought, just like always, the Preds come out real hard. I thought they had us a little on our heels in the first and we made a couple adjustments. I thought after that, being down 2-0, we showed a lot of character. We got it to 3-2, and I felt we were taking the game over, playing our style a little bit more than their style.”
Adjustments aside, it would not be enough to gain any points over his former team.
“You get that close to a point, you should get the point,” Trotz said. “[Closing out games] is what we’ve been doing well all year. This one is a little off the reservation for us.”
Just as important as the two points tonight was giving their coach something to be proud of in his old stomping grounds. Unfortunately, it did not go as planned for the Caps.
“We knew how much he wanted it and we thought we did a good job up until five minutes left,” Laich said. “For us, sorry to kind of let him down. I thought we did play a very good job, we just didn’t get the result.”
The game started at a rapid pace, the Preds setting the tempo from the beginning.
With less than five minutes into a back-and-forth first period, Calle Jankronk won the faceoff against Evgeny Kuznetsov. He passed the puck to Seth Jones, who skated across the blue line and shot through a mess of players. The shot flew over the left shoulder of a surprised Holtby, who was unable to find the puck through the screen.
The last time the Caps trailed, it was January 4th during the second period of their game against the Florida Panthers. Their record when the opponent strikes first? 1-10-5. Make that 1-11-5 now
After a long shift for Nashville in the Caps zone ended with a goal for the home team. When Victor Bartley threw a shot from the point, it got a double deflection and ended up behind Holtby. Through traffic in front of the net, Mike Fisher got his stick on it before Neal, sitting on the doorstep, put the puck into the open net.
Looking to reply, a patient Nicklas Backstrom carried the puck through neutral zone and into the zone, finding Karl Alzner. Alzner sent the puck right in the wheelhouse of Alex Ovechkin who put one of his signature slap shots under the bar on Hutton at an acute angle from the bottom of the faceoff circle.
Shortly after, John Carlson got a semi-breakaway. Although he missed the net he drew a the tripping penalty on Mattias Ekholm.
Ovechkin evened the score on the ensuing power play in a familiar fashion. Receiving a pass from Mike Green, he sent a slap shot towards the goal from his familiar post in the left faceoff circle. Hutton, already down in the butterfly, had no chance to stop the blistering one timer.
It was the captain’s first multi-goal game since Dec. 9th versus the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Caps now have scored power play goals in six of the last eight games.
“The power play is coming back more and more,” Johansson said. “It feels better and better again, power play and the PK are always big part of the game. When you can get those two goals, I think, to get us back in the game to start with today, it’s a real big part of the game.”
When an errant hit on Wilson from Anton Volchenkov ended with the latter in the box, the Caps got a chance to gain the lead on the man advantage.
Green lost the puck on the entry to Fisher and had no choice but to hook the forward on the breakaway. The play landed Green in the box, creating a 4-on-4 for just over 30 seconds and a power play for Nashville afterwards.
Shea Weber slashed Troy Brouwer, giving the Caps a power play early in the third.
Johansson, pointless in the last three games, crashed the net. He got denied on his shot but whacked at the puck a few times before putting it under the left pad of Hutton for the lead.
As the tense period was winding down, Johansson earned a tripping penalty and gave the Preds a power play at a crucial time in the game.
It wouldn’t take long for the home team to cash in on the valuable opportunity. Ekholm pounded the puck on a one-timer from Jones behind a screened Holtby to tie up the game with less than five minutes in regulation.
As the clock ticked down to less than two minutes, Neal picked off Niskanen’s pass and shot the puck through Holtby’s five-hole to give the Preds the lead.
“That one’s on me,” Niskanen said. “That hurts. It costs the team the win. Good effort by a lot of the guys though. I really let the guys down, especially Holts, too.”
A final push for the Caps proved fruitless and a stunned Washington squad left their coach’s former home empty handed.
Clearly not the ending they were hoping for, the visitors went to the locker room feeling like something had been stolen right out of their clutches.
“It kind of felt like we were going to win,” Johansson said. “I think we’ve been good lately with the games we’ve been up one goal. I think we’ve been good closing it out. You know, tough call. They get one on the power play and a tough break, pure bad luck I think, you know, it happens.”
“I thought we took a little bit of a poor penalty and then once they got it tied up, as I’ve been in this building many times, with that seventh man you get a lot of energy in this building,” says Trotz. “One of our defensemen just misplayed the puck there. I felt we should have gotten a point but we didn’t.
Although leaving without any points, some players tried to look on the bright side of the night’s effort.
“Overall I thought we controlled the game,” Laich said. “We got through the first period and our game got stronger. We started to lean on them, more zonetime, outshot them. I thought we played a good hockey game, I thought we played well enough to win. Just a little mismanagement at the end.”
“We battled hard to get back in it,” Niskanen said. “We had a lead in the third period so we put ourselves in a good position and they tie it on up on the power play and I make a bonehead play of the month where they get the win.”
As for the ending, it would be a little bit longer before Niskanen lets himself off the hook for this one.
“As a team for sure, we did some good things,” he said. “Personally I’ll be pissed about that one tonight. But I’m sure I’ll make lots more bonehead moves in my career, so I’ll remember it but I’ll try to forget it.”