by Forechecker on 12/10/08 at 01:55 AM ET
The Vancouver Canucks came into town tonight and left the Nashville Predators battered, bruised, beaten and b$%!*ing after a game marred by cheap hits and calls for league action to “protect the players”, as you’ll see below.
The common wisdom says that the 3-15 spots in the Western Conference are a tossup, since only 9 points separate the 13 teams. In reality, however, Goals For and Against tells a different story, one which I’ll follow up on later this week. For now, however, Vancouver’s 3.04 Goals Per Game and 2.54 Goals Against Per Game is far superior to Nashville’s inverted figures of 2.78 and 3.07. Despite being at the end of a long road trip, the Canucks are, right now, one of the more balanced, solid teams in the Western Conference and a tough opponent for anyone.
The key with Vancouver up front, of course, is solving the Sedin twins. I’ve argued in the past that a focus on Henrik (the playmaker, #33) is probably the right approach since Daniel (the goal-scorer, #22) relies more heavily on his brother for Primary Assists than any other sniper in the NHL, by a long ways. By shutting down Henrik, the thinking goes, you shut down Daniel as well.
Coach Trotz had indicated that Monday’s late-game meltdown against St. Louis would result in changes, and thus he rewarded Kevin Klein with a rare start. There was a new pairing on defense, Klein with Greg Zanon; previously Zanon had been playing with Dan Hamhuis, and Klein (who, when playing, had been paired with Greg De Vries). To the horror of some Preds fans, that meant that De Vries and Hamhuis were reunited; that duo fared horribly in the opening weeks of the season. As the game turned out, however, typical lines and pairings were rendered nearly meaningless as a steady parade to the penalty box early on put special teams at the center of the action.
Kyle Wellwood continued his success at Nashville this season, as he fed Pavol Demitra a crossing pass to open the scoring midway through the first. The puck made it through both Klein and Hamhuis (who was tying up a net-crashing Canuck), making the tap-in for Demitra relatively easy. Once down 1-0, Trotz took the next power play opportunity to roll out his big guns of Arnott/Dumont/Erat up front, with Suter & Weber on the points. While they didn’t score, Vancouver did do them the favor of taking a Too Many Men penalty, giving Nashville a rare (for them, instead of against them) 5-on-3 power play. As I noted earlier today, and as Predators penalty killers are all too aware, those chances are golden.
The fans grew restless as Nashville worked the puck around the perimeter for almost the entirety of the 5-on-3, but with 5 seconds left Radek Bonk stuffed home an Erat feed to even the score. From there, the action turned ugly. Some unexpected pop came with five minutes left in the 1st, as Scott Nichol got nailed up high by Rob Davison along the boards. The big bodies gathered in a scrum, but a moment later, it was Rich Peverley and Jason Laffray throwing punches at center ice. The Predators came out of it with an extra minor (Klein got a double minor for roughing), so Vancouver got their first power play of the game, which Nashville successfully killed off. Nichol later left the game with an “upper body injury” and did not return.
Antti Pihlstrom continues to impress with his work ethic; after killing the first half of that PK, when action returned to 5-on-5 action he found himself chasing down Ryan Kesler as the Vancouver winger entered the Nashville zone a step ahead. Pihlstrom got inside position on him and when Kesler went down to the ice in the ensuing collision, the young Finn at first assumed a ticky-tack Tripping call, but instead Kesler got nabbed for Diving, giving the Predators yet another man advantage. Good hustle on Pihlstrom’s part to earn that uptick in his Penalty Plus/Minus, there.
Early in the 2nd period, J.P. Dumont got caught defenseless as a puck hit him up high, and he got flattened by an Alex Burrows elbow. None other than team captain Jason Arnott stepped up for his linemate, taking Burrows down to the ice and throwing rights with abandon. Arnott ended up with an Instigating minor to go along with five minutes for Pummeling, so Vancouver came out of the mess with seven minutes of power play time. Nashville has had problems with taking too many penalties lately, but you can’t blame Arnott for sticking up for Dumont here. How Burrows got away without a single call is beyond me, but as Alanah twittered, “Did Alex Burrows leave his feet on that hit? Well yes. But people: ignore his listed height/weight in the game notes: he’s only 3’7” tall!”
In the end, the Predators killed off the entire seven minute PP, bringing huge roars of approval from the rather small crowd in attendance (12,441). Normally Trotz likes to follow up a PK with the Arnott/Dumont combo, but the captain received a 10-minute misconduct to go along with his other penalties, so the yeomen went to work instead. Well, at least for a while they did, until a Martin Erat Hooking call put them on the PK again.
Another successful kill kept the crowd pumped, and as if they needed any other reason to get riled up, Ryan Kesler gave it to them as he ran Shea Weber into the boards from behind as they chased a puck down in the Nashville end. Kesler got a Major for the Boarding, while Weber got a double-minor for Roughing as he retaliated for the cheap shot.
All in all, that second period saw the Preds kill off 11 minutes of Vancouver power play, a resounding achievement, to be sure, but not one you want to have to perform in the first place. The 3rd started off with a 4-on-3 advantage for Vancouver, and Alexander Edler put the Canucks up 2-1 just seconds in on a one-timer that pretty much deflated the positive buzz from killing all those previous penalties.
Does it sound like this recap is all about the power plays? That’s because that’s the way this game went, a never-ending battle of special teams with very little 5-on-5 flow. Late in the 3rd, Trotz was finally able to get Arnott & Dumont out for some extended action, and on a dangerous chance #19 drew a Hooking call on Taylor Pyatt, giving Nashville it’s best chance to tie the game. Vancouver put in a solid PK effort of their own, however, frustrating the Preds’ offensive leaders and leaving Nashville with just a few minutes to try and send the contest to overtime. A late empty netter by Burrows (ugh) sealed the deal, however, sending the disappointed crowd out into a rainy Nashville evening.
In the post-game press conference, a Vancouver scribe tried to get Barry Trotz’s opinion of Alex Burrows as a player. “Next question” was his gruff reply, as the Nashville coach was clearly perturbed by the three dangerous hits laid out by Canucks this evening; the Davison hit on Nichol, the Burrows head-shot to J.P. Dumont, and Kesler’s boarding of Shea Weber. Jason Arnott was even more vehement in his call for league action, repeatedly saying that hits to the head are “what we’re trying to get out of this game.” I’m sure the Predators will be very interested to watch how the NHL reacts to those hits, and how they compare on the Scale of Discipline to the public vulgarity of Sean Avery.
All in all, Preds fans can be heartened by the effort of their team. The penalties they took tonight were generally understandable acts of retaliation against Vancouver cheap shots, rather than simple “out of position so haul down the opponent” situations. Even Barry Trotz said “it was a good response by Arnott,” speaking about his avenging the Burrows hit on Dumont (which even a Vancouver commentator termed, “not good”). In terms of rebounds, both teams did a good job defending their crease despite massive amounts of power play time; only two rebound shots were recorded tonight, both by Vancouver, with one of them being the game winning-goal by Edler. On the faceoff dot, Nashville won 31 of 55 draws, including David Legwand’s 8-for-10. Dan Ellis put in a fine performance in his return from injury, and said afterwards that his knee felt fine.
All that, however, fails to add up to two points, which is what Nashville needs to keep pace in this jam-packed Western Conference. One other question remains to be answered, however; if he was obtained to be the policeman for this team, why did Wade Belak only see two shifts and 1:50 of action in the 3rd period? One would think that some bare-knuckle justice initiated by the Predators, rather than done in retaliation, could have set momentum in their favor down the stretch.
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