NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Smashville waited a long time for this. And the first playoff game in Bridgestone Arena in more than two years didn’t disappoint.
The 12.135 in attendance was the largest crowd in any NHL arena this season, with Bridgestone Arena’s capacity expanded to 70 percent for the playoffs, and it did its best to will the Predators back into this series. Cheering the home team on in full throat for 94:54 until Matt Duchene broke loose into the Carolina zone, corralling a lofted pass from Roman Josi and then beating Alex Nedeljkovic for the winning goal.
Game over. Series on.
“I’ve been dying to play in this building in the playoffs for so long,” Duchene said after the game. “It was everything I imagined. Our fans are amazing. It was awesome.”
It was a huge moment for Duchene, who has been much maligned after managing to score just six goals all season long. His lack of production led to him being taken off the power play for game three along with the Preds other $8 million center Ryan Johansen.
Johansen made his own impact on the game, deflecting Ryan Ellis’s third period shot off the ice and past Nedeljkovic to give the Preds a 4-3 lead. He also created numerous other chances in what was no doubt his best performance of the postseason.
The Predators needed their biggest players to step up with their backs against the wall in the biggest game of the season to date, and they did. Besides Duchene and Johansen, Ellis scored and had an assist. Josi had two assists. And Filip Forsberg turned in another highlight reel goal.
Even the power play looked much better with Luke Kunin, Nick Cousins and Erik Haula taking roles on the two units. The Preds may have scored just once in seven tries, Mikael Granlund poking home a puck that sat on the goalline on a 5-on-3 advantage in the second period, but they created several good looks, got traffic to the net and, perhaps most importantly, didn’t allow Carolina any of the shorthanded breakaways it got in game two.
And Nashville once again got a boost from spectacular goaltending. Juuse Saros matched a franchise playoff record with 52 saves, tying the mark set by Dan Ellis back in 2008. He was at his best in the first overtime when momentum seemingly had swung to the Hurricanes after Brett Pesce’s seeing eye wrister found its way into the net to tie the game 4-4 with 3:21 left in regulation.
Saros repeatedly turned away good chances from Carolina, helping Nashville regain its footing for the second overtime and Duchene’s eventual game-winner.
It was a game the Predators deserved to win, and absolutely had to have. And much to the delight of the huge crowd on hand, they found a way to get if done.
The postseason magic is back in Smashville and the Preds have now made this a series.
And the best news of all, after having to wait two years for playoff hockey to return, we only have to wait two days for what is now an even bigger game four.