Gabby didn't score, but we got this photo out of his breakaway attempt. (PHOTO: Marilyn Indahl-USA TODAY Sports)

Nashville 3, Minnesota 1: Preds Finally Break Through

With Chris Mason in net and Gabriel Bourque joining the team, the Nashville Predators visited old pal Ryan Suter in Minnesota and showed him what Predators hockey looks like on the receiving end.

The team got off to a slow start in the first period. Rich Clune got into a fight with Zenon Konopka at 2:18, and failed to fire anybody up. Minnesota took advantage of the slow start, spending a lot of time in Nashville’s zone. The Wild got on the board first when Dany Heatley fired a shot from the high slot; Kevin Klein reached up for the puck and tipped it, redirecting it to beat Chris Mason and make the score 1-0.

Nashville gathered itself and got into the game after the goal, but it had to go back on the defensive after Nick Spaling came into the Minnesota zone on the forecheck and accidentally tripped a Wild player at 12:16. The Preds killed the penalty, and then Spaling got Nashville on the board with a nice wrister from a Backstrom rebound to make it 1-1:

The score stayed tied throughout the second period and into the third, with Nashville controlling most of the play but unable to get clean scoring chances against the Wild’s defensive system. Then came the game-breaker. Minnesota had managed to push Nashville back into their zone before the puck took a strange bounce and cleared the blue line with low momentum, carrying it towards the Minnesota zone. Martin Erat got out ahead of the play while Niklas Backstrom left his net to play the puck. Backstrom got there first, but Erat deflected the goalie’s clearing attempt and came up with the puck. He recovered, skated over to the goal, and tucked the puck away unassisted, making the score 2-1:

With the lead in hand, Nashville had to withstand heavy pressure from Minnesota in the final minutes. Chris Mason was forced to make several big saves and he did so calmly and effectively. At about the 19:00 mark Minnesota put the puck in Nashville’s zone and brought on the extra attacker on. With the Wild pressuring the Preds, Pierre-Marc Bouchard slashed Mike Fisher’s stick behind the goal and took the penalty with less than 30 seconds remaining. It looked like that would be enough for the Preds to close out the game, but then they entered the zone and David Legwand buried a shot in the slot for his first goal of the season to make the final score 3-1.

This was easily the best Nashville has looked all season. They took what was working from the two previous games and kept doing it, while tightening up all the loose parts. The second pair looked downright dominant compared to the previous night, the team gave full effort for the bulk of the game instead of half to two-thirds of it, and the addition of Gabriel Bourque brought a nice energy level that had been missing from the lower lines before tonight’s game.

My three stars and some thoughts.

  • Nashville Predators goalie Chris Mason

    C-Mase’s return to Nashville goal duty ended with a 3-1 victory. (PHOTO: Marilyn Indahl-USA TODAY Sports)

    First Star: Chris Mason’s first start as the new Nashville backup goalie was a solid one all the way around. The only goal he gave up came on a deflection form his own player’s glove, and he came up with big saves when he was called upon. Stopping 29 of 30 shots is going to make you a star in my book any game.

  • Second star: Midway through the first period I told my wife that I’m starting to think Nick Spaling is one of the most effective players on this team in the early season. Just a few minutes later he bagged his first goal of 2013; then he picked up an assist on Legwand’s late power-play goal. Spaling’s feet are moving every second he’s on the ice, he’s making smart plays, and his passes are crisp. He deserves to be playing with better linemates, which he got to do tonight with the addition of Gabriel Bourque to the lineup. I’d like to see what they could do with a third linemate of equal or greater skill instead of Brandon Yip.
  • Third star: Not only did Martin Erat break out of Nashville’s zone ahead of everybody else, but he had the presence of mind to deflect Backstrom’s attempted clear and then recovered to get the puck in the net
  • The second pair: After a rough game against St. Louis, Kevin Klein and Scott Hannan looked excellent. Hannan laid some pretty big hits on and was defensively solid throughout the night. Klein in particular looked excellent, especially when he singlehandedly broke up a Zach Parise entry into the zone one-on-one and cleared the zone in the second period.
  • Energy from Gabriel Bourque: When he touches the puck, good things seem to happen. One play that didn’t pay off but easily could later on: his Milwaukee teammate Ryan Ellis connected with Bourque on a bomb pass out of the Nashville zone; Bourque caught it at the Minnesota blue line traveling at near top speed, and only a savvy poke-check from Backstrom kept Bourque from scoring. All this after catching a 7 a.m. flight from Milwaukee to meet the team in St. Paul. Welcome back, Gabby!

  • Cycling the puck: Yes, please!
  • #TheClune: Rich Clune spent the first 20 seconds or so of his fight with Zenon Konopka getting his face caved in. Then he got getting behind the play on another shift in the second that led to an extended Minnesota presence in the Nashville zone. Then on his last shift, he beelines for a player on the boards for 40 feet out and misses the hit completely, sprawling himself mid-air against the glass. “Tootoo on a bad night” is one way to describe him on-ice. “Gong show” is another. Is there really no better option than him and Brandon Yip? I’m not saying we have to bring up players from Milwaukee before they’re ready, but do we have to put automatic PIMs on the ice with no tradeoff to show for them other than getting to mention “grit” and “fisticuffs” in recaps?
  • Nashville now has four points from three games despite winning only one of them. They’ll have to continue to get better to add to that total in the coming two weeks, since all that time will be spent on the road. But the rust seems to be shaking off to a degree, and tonight they looked a lot more like the Nashville we’re used to watching.

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