James Neal scored the winner in overtime and the Nashville Predators came back to defeat the Winnipeg Jets by a 5-4 final on Monday night at Bridgestone Arena. The victory is Nashville’s second in a row and gives them 34 wins and 79 points overall, good enough to keep their third-place spot in the Central Division.
After trailing 2-0 and 4-3 at different points on the evening, Nashville tied the contest in the third before an overtime power play led to Neal potting his 20th of the season and giving the Preds two more points in a back-and-forth affair.
“It was definitely a character win,” Preds defenseman Roman Josi said. “It wasn’t our best game; we made a lot of mistakes. [Pekka Rinne] kept us in the game, not a lot of chances, especially in the second, but it’s definitely a character win.”
“In the second period, we just fell apart, lost our swagger defensively, and didn’t play a very good period,” Nashville Head Coach Peter Laviolette said. “We addressed a few things after the second period, and I thought we were really good in the third period – defensively, we tightened everything up and offensively we were able to generate chances and gave ourselves a chance in overtime. Nealer had a really nice play, nice pass from Josi, and then a nice play by Nealer to walk to the middle and get a good look at it.”
The Jets took a 2-0 lead in the first, but Nashville tied the score before the period was out. Austin Watson scored his first in 26 games when he struck 23 seconds after the Jets went up by two, then with 11 seconds remaining in the frame, Mike Fisher tallied on a smooth backhand that beat Connor Hellebuyck to even the score.
As the second stanza began, it only took Filip Forsberg 19 seconds to deposit a feed from Ryan Johansen and give the Preds their first lead of the night, but Winnipeg responded with two more before the period was out from Patrik Laine and Joel Armia.
Nashville’s top trio went back to work early in the third and Forsberg found Johansen who converted from a tight angle to tie things at 4-4, and then Neal finished the deal at 2:11 of OT.
“I think it shows that we can play in any type of game,” Neal said. “I think we could definitely tighten some areas up, gave up a few too many scoring chances on Peks, but he made some huge saves to keep us in it. At home in the third period, we needed a big goal and got that from [Johansen].”
Rinne made 30 saves on the night, none bigger than stopping Laine on a breakaway in overtime to give his club a chance to prevail. The Predators now have points in five of their last six against the Jets and have scored four or more goals in five of their last six meetings.
The scoring was timely for the Preds on Monday, with four of their five goals coming at opportune moments crucial to the final result.
First, it was Austin Watson who got the Preds on the board for the first time just 23 seconds after Winnipeg took a 2-0 lead. Mike Fisher evened the score with 11 ticks remaining in the opening frame, and then Filip Forsberg got his 28th just 19 seconds into the second stanza.
And then the most important of all, James Neal picking his spot at 2:11 of overtime for his second consecutive game-winning goal and two more points in the column.
“It was huge, I think especially [Watson’s] goal,” Josi said. “We were down 2-0, and it wasn’t a great start and then his goal was huge. I think he’s been great all year for us, and it’s definitely a big goal. Obviously the OT one and when you get a power play you want to capitalize sometimes, it’s definitely big for us.”
“Timely scoring helped us get out of some bad situations,” Neal said. “Watty with a huge goal and then Fish with another great goal right at the end of the period, so we went in tied after not a good first period. We haven’t won many overtime games, so Joey made a great play to draw a penalty and it was nice to see it go in.”
It’s come to be expected at this point, but that doesn’t make it any less impressive.
With his game-winning strike in overtime, James Neal hit the 20-goal mark for the ninth time in nine NHL seasons, joining an exclusive club. Neal is one of just six active players to accomplish the feat in each of his first nine NHL seasons, with the others being Jaromir Jagr, Alex Ovechkin, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Thomas Vanek.
Neal has scored the game-winner in each of Nashville’s last two games, giving him goals in consecutive outings for the first time since Jan. 22-24, a streak that’s coming at the right time.
“Of course when you score your confidence is going to rise,” Neal said. “When I wasn’t getting the chances, the shots or the looks, that’s when you have to go back and look at your game, and keep it simple. On that road trip I felt like I was having some great chances, some good shots, and getting the looks. When you get the looks you get the confidence and you know you’re going to score, just a matter of time. They do come in bunches, and when you’re feeling it you’re kind of in the zone. I felt good tonight.”
“It was good for James,” Laviolette said. “He has a couple goals in a couple games now, and we need to count on all of our guys. We have a good group in there, and we shouldn’t put it on just one person… We need all of our guys on point as we move down the stretch and push toward the playoffs.”
With an assist on Mike Fisher’s goal, Craig Smith is now one point away from 200 for his NHL career.
Other than Rinne, Nashville’s lineup remained unchanged on Monday. Brad Hunt, Harry Zolnierczyk, Matt Irwin, Kevin Fiala and Vernon Fiddler were scratched.
The Preds are right back on the road for a two-game trip that begins Thursday in Washington D.C. before shifting to Carolina on Saturday.