The Predators smothered the Jets’ offense through the neutral zone and the commitment to team defense saw Nashville recapture home-ice advantage in what has now become a best-of-three between the West’s best.
It was ugly, it was disjointed and it was a battle of will over skill. It was also exactly the game the Nashville Predators wanted to play, getting out to a lead before clogging up the neutral zone and choking off the Winnipeg Jets’ attack in a crucial Game 4 of the second round series between the Western Conference’s top two teams. And after the Jets’ Bryan Little compared it to skating into a wall, well, it’s hard to come up with a description much more fitting.
In a 2-1 victory that drew the best-of-seven series level at two games apiece, the collective defensive effort by the Predators was what dictated the pace of play for the better part of half the contest. Coming off of a track meet Game 3 in which Winnipeg battled back from a 3-0 first period hole to earn a 7-4 victory, Nashville could be seen tightening up almost immediately after Ryan Hartman’s late first period goal Thursday night. And when P.K. Subban capitalized on a power play to give the Predators a 2-0 lead — a goal that temporarily silenced the boo birds at Bell MTS Place for the second consecutive game — Nashville battened down the hatches and suffocated the Jets through the middle of the ice.
“We just did a better job of pressing and in every zone we played in we were five guys,” said Predators captain Roman Josi. “Five guys in the O-zone, five guys in the neutral zone, five guys in the D-zone. It’s a huge part of our game, because they’ve got a lot of speed and I thought we did a great job with that.”
And to hear the Predators tell it, that commitment and buy-in up and down the lineup were the biggest differences between the Jets’ ability to come back from what seemed an insurmountable three-goal deficit in Tuesday’s game and their inability to get anything that even closely resembled flow to their play in Thursday’s contest. “In our zone, when bounces didn’t go our way, we worked the puck out of our zone, got it into the neutral zone, got pucks deep and forechecked when we needed to,” said P.K. Subban, whose third goal of the series stood as the game-winning goal. “We paid attention to the details. Last game, details are kind of what cost us. This game, we paid attention to all of them for a full 60.”
That’s not to say Winnipeg was completely bereft of chances, but their opportunities did dwindle as the outing progressed and Nashville began to park the bus. In each successive period, the Jets managed one fewer shot, and their high-danger opportunities at all strengths went from seven in the first frame to five in the second and just two in the final 20 minutes. A big part of that was the play of the Predators’ vaunted defense corps, including Josi and Subban, who Nashville coach praised highly post-game, saying he had “a monster game” and “was a beast out there.”
But Subban heaped as much praise on the forward group for making life on the blueline that much easier. “I remember a few times taking on the rush and we didn’t really have to do anything because they’re lifting sticks on the way back and turning pucks over,” said Subban. “That’s really, really important…It makes a huge difference.”
Of course, it helps that even when there was a crack in the yellow brick wall the Predators constructed over the back half of the outing, netminder Pekka Rinne stared down everything that came his way. After a rough Game 3 in which he surrendered five goals on 43 shots, good for a .884 save percentage, Rinne stopped all but one of the 33 shots fired his way in Game 4. It was his second-best outing of the post-season thus far. He was all of 51 seconds short of a shutout, but a Patrik Laine wrist shot squeaked through Rinne’s wickets in the final minute, giving the Jets a sliver of hope that Nashville then joyously snuffed out.
The contest did have the distinct feeling that it would be a good one for the Predators keeper, however, particularly after he turned in a miracle save with the butt-end of his stick that robbed Winnipeg of a sure goal. The stop, which needs to be seen to be believed, came eight minutes into the opening frame on a Josh Morrissey attempt. “So lucky,” Rinne laughed post-game. “I’ll take that any day. But it was so lucky. I wish I could say I did that on purpose.”
The task now for the Predators is to replicate their Game 4 effort when the series shifts back to Nashville for Game 5 on Saturday evening. Doing so, though, is going to be a tall task against a Jets team that hasn’t lost consecutive games in nearly two months. The Predators are expecting the challenge, though, especially with the series now boiling down to a best-of-three affair.
“We’ll take this, but we know they’re going to be better as the series goes on,” said Subban. “So I think in this position, this is exactly what both teams expected: for it to be a long series. And now we have home ice back.”
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