NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — This time it was the Hurricanes that rushed their home ice in celebration. Jordan Staal’s tip in goal 2:03 into the third straight overtime game in this epic first round series giving Carolina a 3-2 win and a 3-2 series lead.
The Hurricanes now have a chance to close the series out, just like all the experts expected them to do, in game six back in Nashville Thursday night. The 8:30 p.m. puck drop almost certainly requires an afternoon nap for anyone interested in watching to the end the way these two teams like to draw out the drama.
For the first time in Stanley Cup Playoffs history two teams battled through back to back double overtime games, and then followed it up with another overtime game. Just like Matt Duchene and Luke Kunin were the heroes in games three and four for Nashville, Staal got his turn in the spotlight Tuesday night.
After the Predators were awarded a power play just 56 seconds into overtime when Brady Skjei held Mikael Granlund behind the net, Alexandre Carrier mistakenly got tangled up with Sebastian Aho in the neutral zone and tagged with interference. In the ensuing four-on-four hockey, the Hurricanes pressed into the offensive zone and Brett Pesce sent a shot towards the Nashville goal, Staal deflected it into Juuse Saros’s chest, leading to a rebound that the Carolina captain was somehow able to whack out of the air and past Saros for the game-winner.
Hurricanes players, who had to have felt the pressure of a being a heavily favored top seed being challenged on their home ice deep in a series against a pesky underdog, breathed a sigh of relief, then charged to the celebration in the corner of the rink. For Stall, it was his first goal since his two goal effort in a 5-2 Canes victory in game one that did not adequately hint at what was to come in this series.
This has been an all out war.
These two teams have now played a whopping 373:07 in this series. They have been separated by more than one goal for just 12:53 – the final 12:00 of game one and the final :53 of game two. Since then there have been nine ties and five lead changes in three games of hockey with neither team fiving an inch.
No one gave the Predators a chance against the Hurricanes, and it’s remarkable they have pushed it this far against a team with more firepower and vastly superior special teams. But there they were in the third period of a pivotal game five, with a 2-1 lead on the road, in a building where Carolina lost just three times in regulation all year.
This was the underdog’s chance.
Yakov Trenin – of all people – scored twice. The first came when Roman Josi’s shot from the point deflected off the glove of a Carolina defender and then off of Trenin’s stick, before fluttering past a befuddled Alex Nedeljkovic. It was the type of fortunate carom a challenger usually needs to take down a contender. After Carolina tied the game with a power play goal from Martin Necas, Trenin struck again, converting on a beautiful two-on-one with Colton Sissons with nearly an identical shot to the one he failed to elevate into the open net on a two-on-nobody in game four.
Then came a little more puck luck for Nashville when what seemed to be a tying goal by Carolina was waved off upon review. Star defenseman Jacob Slavin, seeing his first action since game one due to injury, threw a puck into the traffic in front of the net and it ricocheted by Saros. But NHL replay officials determined that Saros was unable to play his position due to Warren Foegele making contact with the goalie while in the crease.
So there the Predators were killing time, holding onto a 2-1 lead and watching Saros potentially steal them a game with another fantastic 34-save effort. There was a chance to extend the lead with just under 12:00 to go when Eeli Tolvanen’s shot bounded away from Nedeljkovic and right into the slot being filled by Ryan Johansen. But the Nashville center fired wide of the net from point blank range.
It will be a shot Johansen will remember all summer if the Preds are unable to come back and win this series because less than five minutes later Necas struck for the second time. The Carolina center skating past Filip Forsberg at the blue line, then around Matt Duchene while deking a shot that forced Saros out of position for a beautiful wrap around goal that tied the score.
So much good work, and maybe even a little good fortune, but once again the Predators were unable to close it out in regulation against a clutch Hurricanes team that’s won the third period in this series by a margin of 8-2. The early power play chance in OT provided another glimmer of hope, but that was gone in a flash with the Carrier penalty and then the Staal goal.
And now the season comes down to a game six back in Smashville where the Predators will try to stave off elimination Thursday night. The home team has won every game in this hotly contested series, so there’s reason to be optimistic, especially with Bridgestone Arena expanding capacity again to 14,107 rowdy fans that will again try to will the Preds to victory.
But even a win will then require another trip to Raleigh for a game seven Saturday, which seems like a tall task in the second most crowded arena in these playoffs. Game five felt like an enormous missed opportunity in the Predators’ quest to pull off a series stunner.
It will now require the Preds to go the distance to upset the Central Division champions, which only seems fitting the way this season and this series have played out. They just need to find a way to win game six first.