They looked great all night long, and by the time it was over, the Predators felt great too.
Sporting their NHL Winter Classic uniforms in front of a Bridgestone Arena White Out, Craig Smith scored a power-play goal late in the third period to give Nashville a 2-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres.
The result gives the Preds a much-desired win heading into the bye week, but it was the way they won – an “identity win,” as Head Coach John Hynes likes to say – that brought about some additional satisfaction in the Nashville locker room.
“These games sometimes are always a little bit iffy because there is a break, but I thought that the mental focus, the effort, the intensity level, the commitment to play the game the right way, managing the puck, puck battles, shot blocking, defensive structure – those things were all there,” Hynes said. “One of the biggest things we wanted to see was our intensity level in the offensive zone rise for extended time… and we did that tonight. When you play that way, you have to play hard. You have to be committed, and tonight we had a committed effort and got rewarded for it.”
“Huge win, big two points,” Preds goaltender Pekka Rinne said. “The way we played the game feels good. I think we needed that kind of game. It’s a close game, it’s a one-goal game and we came from behind. We had to play good defensively, had to grind it out, and had to kill some penalties. I think all the areas that we want to improve, we did an extremely good job. So, I think that makes everybody happy. At this point in the year it doesn’t matter how these wins come, but the way we played makes it feel better.”
Buffalo took a 1-0 lead late in the first period courtesy of Sam Reinhart, but roughly six minutes into the middle frame, Ryan Johansen threw a puck into the crease that bounced off a Sabres defender and into the net to even the score through 40 minutes.
“It feels great,” Johansen said of the win. “I didn’t like our last game and really didn’t want to go into the break without executing a good game plan. We executed a good game plan tonight.”
The Preds produced offensive chances throughout the evening, and that pressure continued in the third with Matt Duchene drawing a penalty on Jack Eichel as regulation time wound down. It took just seven seconds for Smith to tally the winner.
A face-off win led to a perfectly executed play from Kyle Turris, who found Smith in the high slot, and after the winger’s initial redirection hit the post behind Linus Ullmark, the puck came out and bounced back in off the Buffalo goaltender to give the Predators the only lead they’d need.
“It’s really just a quick hit, spread them out and find a lane and try to get a stick on the puck,” Smith said of the play. “It’s just part of our power play that we’ve kind of been working on lately. It was a good pass by [Turris]. It was a good heads-up play.”
Rinne finished with 30 saves on the night for his 16th victory on the season, and the netminder was quite satisfied with what he saw in front of him over the course of the 60-minute outing.
“[Coach Hynes] is very direct, and there’s no question marks on the way he wants us to play the game,” Rinne said. “The Anaheim game was emotional or whatever reason it was, it was a flat game. Then we had long meetings, talked about things and worked on things on the ice. There’s no question marks for anybody in our game, and that’s the way it should look. When we had to kill the game or when we had to kill the clock, I think we did an extremely good job at the end of the game.”
At this juncture, every game is important for the Predators – that’s a given. But considering the situation – a week away from the rink and a time to decompress, recharge and rejuvenate – the last thing the group wanted was a three-game losing streak to dominate the thought process over the next seven days.
That won’t be an issue now, and while the Preds will undoubtedly use this time away to their advantage, there’s already a desire to get back for the final 10 weeks of the regular season – and hopefully a few more.
“It’s a great time for all of us to have a really good identity win,” Hynes said. “We get some time away, and then we’ve got to come back and be ready to go.”
“I’m very excited, but at the same time I’m already eager to get back playing,” Rinne said of the break. “Hopefully, it’s a good time for us. It’s going to be so important for us when we come back. Hopefully we can use this win to enjoy the break, but at the same time come back refreshed, energized and ready to go.”
Ryan Johansen is now on a personal 12-game point streak versus Buffalo, in which he’s tallied 13 points (4g-9a). He’s recorded a point in 14 of his 17 career games against the Sabres (4g-12a).
After assigning Yakov Trenin, Alexandre Carrier and Jarred Tinordi back to Milwaukee on Friday, Austin Watson and Matt Irwin re-entered the Predators lineup on Saturday night.
Prior to Saturday’s game, Preds Head Coach John Hynes said he expects forward Colton Sissons (Injured Reserve) to resume practicing with the team soon after they return from the bye week. A timetable on defenseman Ryan Ellis’s (Injured Reserve) return is uncertain, but the associate captain is working his way through protocol to get back on the ice soon.
Nashville’s bye week has arrived, and later in the week, Preds Captain Roman Josi will represent his club at 2020 NHL All-Star Weekend in St. Louis. The All-Star Skills Competition takes place on Friday night at 7 p.m. CT before the NHL All-Star Game on Saturday evening, also at 7 p.m. Stay tuned to NashvillePredators.com for full coverage with Josi in St. Louis.