COLUMBUS, Ohio – The flu couldn’t beat Pekka Rinne. How could the Columbus Blue Jackets?
Ryan Suter had a goal and an assist and Craig Smith scored his first NHL goal to lead the Nashville Predators past the Blue Jackets, 3-2 on Friday night in the opener for both teams.
Matt Halischuk also scored for the Predators. Rinne had 32 saves, many of highlight-reel quality while the Blue Jackets were frantically scrambling to catch up before a capacity crowd of 18,247.
Rinne, second in the Vezina Trophy voting last season, was almost sidelined by the flu.
“It was just a little stomach flu. It was more precaution, not skating yesterday,” he said. “I was just getting my rest and my energy back. Nothing serious.”
He said he was 100 per cent. He looked even better than that.
“He played well,” Nashville coach Barry Trotz said. “He probably wanted to get that first one back but he was good the rest of the night.”
In the second period, Rinne made three stops from close range to stymie Columbus newcomer Jeff Carter.
Columbus unveiled its new top line, featuring perennial all-star Rick Nash, along with summer acquisitions Carter, the former Philadelphia star picked up in a trade, and free-agent signing Vinny Prospal. Nash and Prospal each had a goal and an assist and Carter had two assists in his first game in a Blue Jackets sweater.
“Every time they’re on the ice, they seem to have at least one scoring chance,” Rinne said. “Or at least they try to shoot and try to create every single shift. If you’re a goalie or a defenceman, it’s challenging. I like that challenge. I like playing against those guys.”
The Predators improved to 11-5-2 on Columbus’ home ice since 2006-07 and 18-11-3 overall.
“We had some opportunities, but Pekka Rinne was solid for 60 minutes,” Columbus coach Scott Arniel said.
After a scoreless opening period, Nashville got on the board first with a power-play goal five minutes into the second period.
On a give-and-go, Sergei Kostitsyn carried the puck out of the corner and slid a pass to Suter at the left dot for the one-timer.
The Predators had a man advantage because Columbus’ Derek Dorsett closed his gloved hand on the puck while trying to clear it from the zone after losing his stick.
The Blue Jackets countered with the first of two goals from their highly touted first line.
On a rush, Nash dropped a pass to Carter, who fired a shot just from inside the right point. Carter’s shot appeared to handcuff Rinne, the puck sliding off his arm and down the back of his leg toward the goal line. Prospal beat teammate Fedor Tyutin to the loose puck and jammed it in.
But the Predators quickly regained the lead and didn’t give it up.
Shea Weber, with one of the hardest shots of any NHL player, unloaded a shot from the right point. Goalie Steve Mason, who had 28 saves, thought he had covered the puck as he fell backward, but it sat on the ice near the goal line. Smith pounced on the puck for his landmark first goal.
“I know it’s pretty special for some guys to get it on the first night,” said the rookie. “I was fortunate enough that I got that puck to squeeze through there for me.”
The third period was less than a minute old when Cal O’Reilly tossed the puck near the goal and Halischuk collected it and backhanded it into the net—with his back to Mason.
Columbus cut the lead to 3-2 with 9:41 left when Prospal circled the back of the net and slid the puck to Nash, who had a defender draped all over him as he muscled in to push the puck past Rinne.
Rinne was flat on the ice to stop a shot by Mason in the final minutes, then came up big during a major scrum in the crease in the closing seconds.
“It was a good game for us,” Rinne said. “It’s a big start for the season. It didn’t come easy but we played strong. We battled hard. We played with desperation. It was nice to see the young guys stepping up and playing big roles; that’s what we need this year.”
NOTES: Weber’s hard shot in the second period knocked the mask off of Mason. … Three rookies made their NHL debuts for the Blue Jackets: RW Cam Atkinson, C Ryan Johansen and D David Savard. … Nashville RW Martin Erat left the ice in the first period grimacing in the first period but returned to play the final two periods.