NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — There are few scenes in sports quite like playoff hockey in Smashville. Watch parties in the park. Fans taking whacks at the smash car. A band rocking the plaza. And most importantly, a soldout crowd of delirious, gold-clad fans providing one of the best home ice advantages in all of the NHL to the Predators.
For the first time in over two years, that experience returns tonight as the Preds host the Hurricanes in game three of their opening round series. Bridgestone Arena capacity has been expanded for the playoffs, in accordance to Metro Public Health and NHL guidelines, to 70 percent of 12,135. And the Preds hope that crowd can push them over the top against the Central Division champs after they lost games one and two in Carolina.
“You (could) see the energy that our fans brought to our team, particularly the last few games of the regular season,” Predators head coach John Hynes said. “The guys are jacked, I’m sure the fans are jacked to be able to be here. It’s going to be an electric environment, which could be good for us.”
The pandemic meant that last year’s playoffs were contested in a bubble, so the last playoff game in Nashville was game five of the first round against the Stars more than 25 months ago. Capacity restrictions have meant some Predators players have never seen Bridgestone Arena as full as it will be for this game tonight.
“You always kind of remember Bridgestone as the fans are wild and the ice feels tilted at times,” said defenseman Matt Benning, who has only seen big crowds in the arena as a visiting player. “I think that’s kind of what we’re looking to do tonight to get our fans behind us and help us. We’ll be ready from the jump.”
The Predators failed to score in a 3-0 loss in game two despite getting seven power play opportunities. They had 13:04 with the man-advantage, yet only managed 10, not all that threatening shots on Carolina rookie goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic.
In fact, the Preds struggled so much that the Hurricanes managed to get off seven shots shorthanded in that time, including a few that required Juuse Saros to make spectacular saves to keep the score from getting out of hand.
Nashville has spent the last two days trying to figure out ways to better break down the Carolina penalty kill, rated as one of the best in the NHL, and get set up into their power play in the attacking zone. Hynes promises a few new wrinkles tonight to try to jump-start the struggling unit.
“We’re going to have some adjustments to the power play personnel-wise,” Hynes said Friday morning. “Different positions where guys will be and some different guys on the power play. So, that’s where we started. And then we looked at our break-ins, where we can possibly get in with possession and more speed so we can get set up in the offensive area. And then we’ve got to do a good job of just understanding their pressure, where it comes and then what are the release points to relieve that pressure. We did spend a lot of time on it, so I think that should give us a better opportunity tonight to rectify what happened the other night.
TIME FOR THE BIG GUNS TO STEP UP
Through two games Carolina’s best players have been as advertised. Captain Jordan Staal had two goals in game one, the electric Sebastian Aho scored twice in game two, and perhaps the league’s best blue line corps has been suffocating against Preds forwards despite star D-man Jaccob Slavin not playing in game two due to an injury.
Meanwhile, the Predators best players have not had much of an impact. Ryan Johansen found Filip Forsberg for the first goal in game one, but the JOFA line was largely quiet in game two. The second line that was so special all season long has yet to put itself on the score sheet. And the Preds’ vaunted blueliners made some costly mistakes in game one that prompted Hynes to shuffle the pairings for game two.
Now down 2-0 in the series, Nashville needs its big guns to play like big guns to at least match the effort that Carolina is getting from its stars. Otherwise, this series could be over quickly.
“That’s how championship teams win, that’s how teams are successful,” Johansen said after game two. “Their big boys do big things on the ice. And obviously, down 0-2 our group can do more, including myself.”
After missing game two due to a non-COVID-related illness, Predators forward Calle Jarnkrok will be back in the lineup for game three. Slavin missed the morning skate for the Hurricanes and is expected to be out of the lineup once again.