Down 2-0, heading home to Bridgestone Arena for Game 3 of the Western Conference Semifinals, the Nashville Predators were between the virtual rock and a hard place.
In Game 1, the team had come out “peppy” and outplayed the Phoenix Coyotes in Glendale before a lack of bounces cost them in overtime. In Game 2, the team came out flat, not being able to maintain the puck, not playing solid defensively and simply getting manhandled by the Coyotes.
“We just have to play for 60 minutes,” Nashville forward Martin Erat said. “In Phoenix we played 5 minutes on and took 5 minutes off. You can’t play like this in the playoffs.”
On Wednesday night at Bridgestone Arena, the Predators came out for Game 3 with a 2-game deficit. It was the third time in franchise history that the team had started a series 0-2 – both times, the Predators have come back to tie before losing in 6 games.
From the outset, Wednesday night was different from the first two games. The Predators were playing tough. They were playing physically.
At 8:10 of the first period, Nashville opened the scoring when Phoenix netminder Mike Smith came out of his net to play the puck. Instead of clearing the zone, Smith put the puck on Gabriel Bourque’s stick who then passed it to David Legwand who beat the scrambling Smith to give the Predators a 1-0 early lead.
Instead of laying off the gas and trying to protect the lead, however, the Predators made sure they maintained momentum just 66 seconds later as Sergei Kostitsyn fed Mike Fisher who deflected a puck off Smith’s stick and into the net. It would be the last score for either team in Nashville’s 2-0 victory.
The second tally was largely due to the physical play of Erat, who took the puck off of Phoenix defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s stick and fed Kostitsyn.
“It’s my style of game,” Erat said. “I don’t change much. Tonight I just said to myself, ‘You have to play harder.’”
To Erat, the main difference in Wednesday’s game was the team playing physically and staying focused for the entire 60 minute contest – a point he emphasized repeatedly. Turning Phoenix’s game around and throwing it back at them was a major key to Nashville’s Game 3 victory.
“In Phoenix, we gave them so much time and space,” Erat said. “They created so much speed going through the neutral zone. They stayed with us in the defensive zone, so we decided to turn it around and do it to them.”
“We played Predator hockey…finally,” Nashville head coach Barry Trotz said after the contest.
Obviously, Nashville could not afford to go down by 3 games in the series. Only 3 teams in NHL history have come back to win a series from a 3-game deficit.
“We lost two games on the road,” Erat said. “We came back and we could not afford to lose the game at home. We did a good job for the full 60 minutes. We just played hard. That’s how we have to play in the next game and go from there.”
The Predators closed the series to within one game, but as Trotz pointed out, the momentum can change in a flash.
“I think we have the momentum until about midnight tonight,” Trotz said. ”Then it starts all over again, and that’s how you have to look at it because it can change in a heartbeat.”
As for Erat, he summed up the game in about as straightforward of a manner as the Czech forward can.
“We played hard for 60 minutes and finally showed some balls.”