NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Jeff Tambellini had just 4:41 of ice time in his first career NHL playoff game. He didn’t score, or get an assist.
All he did was make a huge defensive play that helped his team protect a fragile lead and advance to the Western Conference final.
Tambellini stopped a Martin Erat breakaway in the second period and the Canucks held on for a series-clinching 2-1 win over the Nashville Predators in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinal Monday.
With just over six minutes remaining in the second and the Canucks holding on to their slim 2-1 lead, Erat came off of the Nashville bench late as the Predators completed a late change.
The puck made its way toward Erat just inside the Vancouver blue-line, and he had a clear path to Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo.
Tambellini sprinted after the speedy Czech, and not only did he catch up with Erat, he got even with him and drove his right shoulder into him before both ran into the Vancouver net, knocking it off of its moorings.
The hit was clean, and all that resulted out of the prime scoring opportunity was a faceoff inside the Vancouver zone.
“We looked like we had a lot of space in the zone, but the puck kind of slid past, and before we knew it the guy is in the other zone,” Tambellini said. “The panic button set in and I just tried to get there as quickly as I could.
“I think he kind of got flat-footed, and I had a chance to get a step on him. You don’t want to take a penalty that would lead to a penalty shot, so I just tried to get as much body in front of him as I could.”
Tambellini was just ahead of teammate Kevin Bieksa on the play.
“Awesome play,” Bieksa said. “I was right behind him there, and I was just hoping he was going to catch him. Talk about a guy, first playoff game tonight, and he stayed in fresh and in shape the whole time. He stayed positive and comes in and makes an impact right away. He’s a true professional.”
Monday night was Vancouver’s 13th playoff game this post-season, and in each of the previous 12, Tambellini was told that he would be a healthy scratch.
But after forward Mikael Samuelsson sustained an unspecified injury in Saturday night’s Game 5 loss in Vancouver, the Vancouver coaching staff tabbed Tambellini to take his place in the lineup, giving the 27-year-old his first opportunity to appear in a playoff game.
That first playoff appearance came in the same building that the Los Angeles Kings made Tambellini the 27th overall pick in the first round of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft.
“I never really thought about that,” Tambellini said. “It was a great feeling playing one of those games in this atmosphere in an elimination game.”