NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Sebastian Aho won the draw, skated to the front of the net, raised his stick and deflected home Jaccob Slavin’s shot from the near wall. And just like that the series was over 1:06 into overtime.
Hurricanes 4, Predators 3, giving Carolina the series in six games.
The Central Division champs are moving on, just as everybody expected. But boy, did they have a battle on their hands that no one expected.
For six games and six overtime periods the Predators went toe to toe with the Hurricanes. And man, did they have their chances in game six to extend this series to a winner-take-all game seven.
Erik Haula found Nick Cousins for the game’s first goal, sending the Smashville crowd of 14,107 - the largest in the NHL this season - into a frenzy just 1:44 after the great Cece Winans took them to church with quite possibly the best national anthem rendition ever at Bridgestone Arena - and that’s definitely saying something. Then after Creed’s Scott Stapp rocked the band stage during the first intermission, Mikael Granlund gave the Predators a 2-1 lead just 1:13 into period two, taking a Ryan Ellis pass and beating Alex Nedeljkovic in front.
When Ryan Johansen cashed in a sweet Roman Josi feed during a five-on-three advantage minutes later, the Preds grabbed their first two goal lead of the entire series. It looked like the home team was headed for a sixth straight win in this series.
But after Nashville turned in its best 30 minutes of the series to start the game, Carolina flipped the script. The Hurricanes pressed into the attacking zone, put the Preds on their heels and started peppering Juuse Saros.
And just like game five, when the Predators failed to make the plays to close out a 2-1 third period lead in what ultimately ended up a 3-2 overtime loss, they couldn’t come up with the play to seal this one, either.
Matt Benning took an interference penalty that gave Carolina’s dangerous power play a chance. Mattias Ekholm had an opportunity to clear a puck which probably would’ve killed it off, but couldn’t get any lift on it. Dougie Hamilton was able to keep it in the zone, then fired a shot that was deflected in by Aho - one of his series-high five goals.
The third period was a Carolina onslaught, especially after Josi, Nashville’s most valuable defenseman left the ice after being hit hard into the boards. Saros did everything in his power to keep the Preds in front with point blank stops of Steven Lorentz, Jordan Staal and a glove save of a Brett Pesce shot on a three-on-two. You wondered if Saros, who stopped 232 of the whopping 252 shots he faced in the series could bail the Predators out once again, but the Hurricanes kept coming.
And the Predators kept icing the puck, including one from Yakov Trenin in which he probably could’ve gotten to the center stripe and dumped it in. Aho won the resulting faceoff and Slavin found Dougie Hamilton, who Trenin lost in coverage as he streaked backdoor to tie the game 3-3. It was the type of defensive breakdown that just could not happen, but happened too much in this series for the Preds to pull off the win.
They failed to clear a puck and left Nino Neiderreiter free in the slot to break open a 2-2 tie in game one, and gave up tying goals with 3:21 left in game three, 7:05 left in game five and Hamilton’s equalizer with just 6:01 left Thursday night.
In all, Carolina outscored Nashville 9-2 in the third period in this series. The Preds outscored the Canes 14-13 in all other periods. In a series that last 434:13, and had a two goal margin for just 18:55, it was the Hurricanes that made the plays when it mattered most.
This was a Nashville team that very easily could’ve folded in mid-March when it was 10 points out of a playoff spot, but instead fought its way into a seventh straight postseason and a play here or there from making things really interesting against the heavily favored Hurricanes.
This was a Carolina team that could’ve gotten frustrated when it never was able to get separation against a Nashville squad it owned during the regular season, winning the first six meetings before dropping two meaningless games to close the regular season, playing to four straight overtime games, just the third time that’s happened in a playoff series in NHL history. But the Hurricanes just stayed with it, and their stars - Aho, Staal, and Slavin - who was a glaring absence in games two, three and four - got the better of Nashville’s top players.
Not by much, but by enough that they’re moving into a round two date against the reigning Stanley Cup champion Lightning while the Predators can start looking to make summer tee times at the local golf course.
The playoffs in this sport come down to a play here, a mistake there and a deflected puck. Carolina showed why it’s a bonafide Cup contender by absorbing Nashville’s best shots and making the plays when they mattered in this series.
The Predators can hold their heads high. They found the fight that’s been missing the last couple of seasons and took Smashville on a memorable two and a half month ride that should be remembered fondly, punctuated by an epic playoff series.
But only one team can move on. And the right team is. Even if the Preds made it more difficult than anybody imagined.