NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — If you were wondering what the Predators had left after their double overtime game three victory over the Hurricanes that lasted for nearly 95 grueling and exhilarating minutes Friday night, the answer Sunday was 96 more minutes of edge-of-your-seat hockey and ear-splitting noise at Bridgestone Arena.
Another crowd of 12,135 matched the largest attendance at a NHL game this year - a record set in this same arena Friday. Those fans nearly blew the lid off the joint when Luke Kunin scored just 57 seconds into the game. They continued to scream all afternoon, right up until Kunin broke his stick, skated to the bench to retrieve a new one from crack equipment manager Pete Rogers, then moved into the offensive zone undetected and in time to meet a Mikael Granlund pass in the slot and shoot the puck past Alex Nedeljkovic for another double overtime win that sent those delirious fans spilling out onto lower Broadway for a night of celebration.
Final score: Predators 4, Hurricanes 3. Series tied 2-2, heading back to Carolina for game five Tuesday night at 7 p.m. CT.
Kunin’s game-winner was the culmination of a weekend in Smashville that saw more than 191 minutes played. For those that struggle with numbers, (I was told there would be no math) that’s more than three regulation hockey games. These games saw seven ties and three lead changes and the score deadlocked for nearly 119 minutes of play. Not once did either the Predators or Hurricanes possess a lead of more than one goal. In fact, in the 311:04 played in this series so far, the teams have been separated by more than one goal for just 12:53.
That’s really amazing if you think about it, because the Hurricanes are a bonafide Stanley Cup contender. They were the third best team in the NHL this season, behind only the Avalanche and Golden Knights, and controlled the first two games, winning by a margin of 8-2.
They have the superior talent, the better special teams and a rookie goaltender in Nedeljkovic that is coming into his own. He made 97 saves in these two losses, many spectacular, including four of five in the late stages of the third period and overtime Sunday that kept us playing as long as we did.
But the Predators haven’t flinched against the Central Division champs. On Sunday they proved they will not go down without a fight, backing up Friday’s sensational performance with another one that now shrinks this series to a best-of-three for the right to move on. And remember, this is just round one.
There’s plenty of praise to be thrown around. Start with Kunin who doubled his career playoff goals in one afternoon, and placed a considerable amount of pressure on the Hurricanes as they flew back to Raleigh Sunday night. Move to Rogers, folks in the Predators organization will tell you is the best equipment guy in the business, who provided the assist of the night by being right there on the spot to get Kunin a new stick in time for the game’s decisive shot. He got a well deserved round of applause in the dressing room after the game.
Then you must look at Juuse Saros, likely the single biggest reason this team emerged from a woeful 11-16-1 start to the season to finish 20-7-1 in the second half to reach the playoffs. He’s been the best goaltender in the league for a couple months now, and continued that this weekend. On Friday he tied the franchise playoff record for saves with 52. On Sunday he broke it with 58, becoming just the second goaltender in NHL history, along with Curtis Joseph in 1993, with consecutive 50 save games in the postseason. Saros kept the Preds in it despite Carolina’s constant pressure through the first two periods, and all the way up until Kunin’s heroics.
But, like Friday, this was a total team effort. Ryan Johansen scored again. Game three hero Matt Duchene was as active as anybody, shaking off a nasty cut to his forehead after a big check into the boards to lead Nashville in shots, including the two best overtime chances before Kunin ended things. Nick Cousins was inserted into the lineup in game three, and got an enormous tying goal in the third period mere minutes after Brock McGinn scored his second goal of the afternoon 13 seconds into the period to give Carolina a 3-2 lead.
Cousins’ goal came on the power play, which cashed in for the second straight game after going 0-7 in game two in Carolina. So credit John Hynes for his dramatic changes to that unit ahead of game three which included the addition of Cousins and the subtraction of both Johansen and Duchene.
Meanwhile, the Hurricanes may have benefited from head coach Rod Brind’Amour’s public criticism of the officiating following game three. The Canes got four power play opportunities to the Preds two, but were unable to capitalize thanks to Saros and a stingy Nashville defense that blocked 31 shots.
At the very least the Predators have made this a series, getting every last ounce of effort and production out of a lineup that appears to be overachieving after three straight postseasons of underachievement.
That effort was more than embraced by a Smashville crowd, that stood and clapped and yelled for more then eight hours this weekend. In that crowd was Keith Urban and Nicole Kidman, Mike Fisher and Carrie Underwood and a beer crushing Taylor Lewan, who put down his toddler in time to rip off his shirt and chug/bath himself in not one, but two Michelob Ultras, sending Bridgestone Arena into a frenzy.
It was a memorable scene in a memorable weekend in Smashville, which is now guaranteed at least one more playoff game - game six Thursday - which will give the Predators either a chance to clinch the series or force a game seven back in Carolina if necessary Saturday.
No one saw that coming as evidenced by the experts, about 99.9 percent of whom picked Carolina to win. But these Predators are becoming much watch tv.
And there’s a growing belief their best hockey, and even more fun in Smashville, could be still in front of them.