By Bucky Dent
NASHVILLE -- No Alexander Radulov? No Andrei Kostitsyn?
Without two of its top six forwards after a team-imposed one-game suspension, Nashville made two first-period goals stand up Wednesday night for a 2-0 win over Phoenix.
The victory cut the Predators' deficit to 2-1 in the best-of-seven Western Conference semifinal series.
David Legwand and Mike Fisher scored 66 seconds apart for the Predators, which got 32 saves from Pekka Rinne in a bounce-back effort for the Finnish goaltender. They will try to even the series at home Friday night.
"We've got one," Legwand said. "So we're back in it. Now we've got to get the next one and we'll go from there."
After 4-3 and 5-3 defeats in Phoenix over the weekend, Nashville general manager David Poile and coach Barry Trotz announced Tuesday morning that Radulov and Kostitsyn, acquired in separate transactions late in the season to boost the offense, would sit out Game 3 for a violation of team rules.
Radulov hinted in an interview following practice Tuesday that the suspension was for missing curfew but didn't elaborate, while Kostitsyn didn't comment. Both can return for Game 4, although some might wonder if Trotz will fiddle with the 18 skaters which got the fourth-seeded Predators their first win against the No. 3 Coyotes.
Asked if he would consider a lineup change Friday night, Trotz did everything but commit to the status quo.
"It's very hard to change this lineup if everyone is as committed as this group was tonight," he said. "It's a privilege to play in the Stanley Cup playoffs. I listened to a commentator and he thought it was all wrong, but that's not how we do things here. I'll never apologize for doing what we thought was right."
Returning to its foundation of defense, physical play and timely scoring, Nashville broke through and justified the sky-high expectations of a fan base dreaming of its first Stanley Cup after a five-game elimination of long-time power Detroit in the first round.
The Predators took their first lead of the series at 8:10 of the first period, thanks to help from Phoenix goalie Mike Smith.
A willing puck-handler, Smith gave it away from behind his net to Gabriel Bourque, who passed to Legwand. Cruising into the slot, Legwand zipped a 30-footer past Smith as Bridgestone Arena erupted.
It was the third goal of the playoffs for Legwand, whose giveaway led to a goal during the second period of a 5-3 loss Sunday at Phoenix, symbolized an uncharacteristically bad defensive effort for the Predators.
Moments later, Fisher finished off a tic-tac-toe sequence from Sergei Kostitsyn and Martin Erat with a tap-in goal past Smith at 9:16.
"We were better on the puck," Fisher said. "We were hard on the puck."
During a TV timeout after the second goal, a catfish -- Nashville fans' answer to the octopus which regularly litter the playoff ice in Detroit -- flopped on the ice and nearly struck Smith.
The Coyotes mounted several promising counter-attacks after falling behind, but couldn't solve Rinne, who gave up a surprising nine goals in the series' first two games. He got help from the goal post, which denied Rostislav Klesla on a first period wrist shot.
Rinne was at his best late in the third period when Phoenix had 41 seconds of 5-on-3 time after Kostitsyn and Erat took minor penalties, making a spate of highlight-film saves as the Coyotes poured pucks at the net.
"When you give up a lot of goals and lose two in a row, you can put pressure on yourself," Rinne said. "Our team played with a lot of desperation. We were blocking shots and battling. That makes things easier."
Phoenix coach Dave Tippett, whose team won all three of its road games in eliminating Chicago 4-2 in the first round, said his team simply didn't take care of business early in its end of the rink.
"We gave up two easy, unearned goals early," he said. "We gave them early energy and momentum. We knew they would respond. They had their work boots on."
The Predators outhit the Coyotes 26-21, blocked 15 shots and won 52 percent of faceoffs. It was a far cry from the Game 2 loss in which they yielded 39 shots.
Besides helping make the decision to suspend Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn, Trotz called out his team's other top players, saying they had to play like top players.
He had no such complaints following Game 3.
"Our top players were our best players," he said. "We had a good commitment level from everyone. We played Predator hockey – finally."
NOTES: Radulov was the Predators' leading point-scorer in the playoffs with six off a goal and five assists, while Andrei Kostitsyn is tied with Bourque for the goal-scoring lead with three. ... Jordin Tootoo and Colin Wilson replaced Radulov and Kostitsyn in the lineup. ... Phoenix has never won consecutive playoff series in franchise history, including its years in Winnipeg.
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