The Nashville Predators suffered a crushing defeat on Tuesday night and there’s no better way to say that. It’s not the fact that they lost Game 3 of their Western Conference Semifinal series to the Winnipeg Jets — the second best team in the National Hockey League during the regular season — by a score of 7-4. The adjective “crushing” comes from the fashion in how they lost.
Mike Fisher, PK Subban and Austin Watson all scored in the game’s opening period to silence the loud and boisterous crowd inside Bell MTS Place and give the Preds a commanding 3-0 lead. In the second period, however, a fortunate bounce off of Paul Stastny’s leg on a Jacob Trouba shot from the blueline deflected past Rinne and, all of a sudden, the Jets had life. Just over two and a half minutes later, Dustin Byfuglien wound up from the blueline and used a double screen by teammate Tyler Myers and Nashville center Kyle Turris to find the back of the net and pull within one. Then, like a snowball rolling down a steep hill, just 18 seconds later, the Jets would tie it when Trouba lost Roman Josi behind the Preds net only to come out the other side and one-time a Blake Wheeler pass home.
If all that wasn’t enough, Winnipeg got another when the Preds failed to clear just before the period ended. Byfuglien found himself open on the far side of the ice and Patrik Laine made a ridiculous pass to set up the go-ahead tally.
“We just stopped playing,” Ryan Ellis said. “That was clear as day. I think you could see that. You can’t win hockey [games] when you stop playing midway through the second.”
Ellis finished with a minus-2 rating on Tuesday while his defense partner Roman Josi finished a minus-3 and was on the ice for four of Winnipeg’s seven goals.
“We did a lot of things poorly and they got better,” Ryan Johansen, also a minus-3, said. “Momentum swings in playoffs, they can be deadly and they did a great job of climbing back in the game. We did a good job of tying it up again as well just an unfortunate ending.”
The alternate captain is right. Once the third period began, Nashville did stare down that snowball. A horrible interference penalty taken by Jets forward Jack Roslovic created an opportunity to balance out the ice a little and the Preds did just that. Filip Forsberg scored his fifth of the playoffs on the ensuing power play and, all of a sudden, the game was tied with about 12 minutes to go in regulation.
Then the parade to the penalty box happened. Kevin Fiala, Subban and goaltender Pekka Rinne all took ill-advised penalties in the game’s final eight minutes and that would be the difference.
“We’ve got to stay out of the box,” Johansen said. “We beat ourselves there at the end. We had the lead, they came back, it is what it is but then we tied it up again and we’re back in the ballgame. Then we took penalties that late. They have too much firepower. We can’t go in the box at that time of the game.”
Jets captain Blake Wheeler saw a rebound on his stick from a tough angle but converted anyway to give his team the late lead.
“We had a good push back, we got a big goal and some of the calls didn’t go in a our favor but that’s going to happen,” Ellis said. “We’ve got to find a way to kill those off and then do our best in front of Peks. Tonight, that didn’t happen.”
The slashing penalty assessed to Rinne was well deserved but also a rare sight. The veteran netminder rarely loses his composure but he did late in the game as seen below.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) May 2, 2018
“Obviously that wasn’t smart,” Rinne said. “At that point of the game, that penalty. Emotions got the best of me.”
Rinne’s outbursts are so few and far between, the last time it happened the fanbase remembers like it was yesterday. It was Game 7 of the 2016 Western Conference Semifinals out in San Jose. The Preds were exhausted having taken the Anaheim Ducks to seven games the series before and here they were in the same situation. Both series’ had required three five hour flights to and from California and, while the players didn’t say it, they had hit a wall. Rinne played his tail off in that game trying to keep his team afloat but everyone playing in front of him was so gassed it was almost as if they were just going through the motions just to survive. When the Sharks scored their fifth goal — much like Winnipeg did on Tuesday — Rinne’s frustration bubbled over.
On the sequence just before the slashing incident on Adam Lowry, a strap on Rinne’s mask had come undone. On the replay, he was clearly seen trying to tell the official behind him that he needed a whistle so he could fix it but no whistle came. Some think the crowd noise drowned out Rinne’s request, some think the official thought it was a desperate attempt to stop play as couldn’t see the strap in question (he was on the opposite side of the ice). Either way, Wheeler scored the eventual game winner just moments later.
“I always try to play [through things like that] and respect the game,” Rinne said about his mask. “I didn’t want to shake it off but, obviously, that didn’t end too well.”
Either way, while it was the deciding goal, it was hardly the difference in the game. The formula of a poor second period, struggling defense and the lack of discipline late in the contest is the reason the Preds are down two games to one today instead of up two to one.
Game 4 just became mission critical.