The Preds’ 4-3 victory over the Washington Capitals on Thursday night gave Nashville their first Central Division title in franchise history. The two points also bestowed a regular-season Western Conference crown on the Predators.
The final horn at Capital One Arena didn’t sound the end of the tension, however, as the team then ran to the locker room to view the closing moments of the Boston Bruins and Florida Panthers game on their phones. A Jared McCann goal with 5:37 left was just what the Panthers and Preds needed; the Panthers’ 3-2 triumph clinching one more banner for the Predators, this time the League’s regular-season crown as Presidents’ Trophy winners.
“The guys worked really hard,” Predators Head Coach Peter Laviolette said. “All year we’ve talked about doing the best we can and it’s always just been about home ice and trying to stay in our building and give ourselves the best chance to be successful in the playoffs… The guys did an incredible job of staying really focused and fairly consistent with their game, and because of it, we sit where we sit.”
As for the game the Predators directly played in, the visitors rallied twice, using a 2-for-2 performance on the power play to record their franchise-record 52nd win of the campaign.
Craig Smith scored two times and Roman Josi knotted the contest at 3-3 in the third period prior to Ryan Johansen pushing the puck just across the goal line for his 15th and the game-winner.
“There’s things you want to check off the list at the beginning of the year, goals you want to hit and I think it’s just the way that we play,” Smith said. “Tonight was great.”
Smith tallied on the power play less than five minutes into the game to give the Preds a 1-0 lead after 20 minutes, but Washington stormed back to start the second, potting two power-play markers of their own to grab their first lead of the evening.
But in a period that was largely dominated by the home team, and after Juuse Saros was done making save after save, it was Smith who found a loose puck for the second time, once again beating Philipp Grubauer to even the score.
Evgeny Kuznetsov’s second of the evening put the Capitals ahead 3-2 just 67 seconds into the final period, but the better team in the third would end up clearly being the Predators.
Down a goal, Nashville went to work, with Josi’s one-timer tying the game before the midway mark of the period, and later, the Preds’ first line got the deciding marker in wowing fashion. After Filip Forsberg skated through the Capitals’ defense – including putting a puck between a defenseman’s legs – the rebound from Viktor Arvidsson’s shot was just nudged across the goal line by Johansen.
And that was all the Predators needed to do something no Nashville team has ever done before.
“It’s a long road, but I think the guys did an unbelievable job of just staying focused,” Laviolette said. “When we did hit a bump in the road, that bump turned quickly in a different direction and they got back to work and got it working in a really positive way. The leadership in the room was excellent all year long.”
The 2017 Western Conference Champions banner at Bridgestone Arena will have some company next fall.
A 4-3 win in Washington on Thursday night clinched the first Central Division title for the Predators in franchise history, as well as a regular-season Western Conference title.
But as the Predators retired to their locker room, plenty of jubilation in tow already, a game in South Florida grabbed their attention. A few cell phones streaming the Panthers and Bruins made their way out into the open, and just moments after clinching the Central and the West, the Predators watched, as a team, the Presidents’ Trophy come their way, too.
Quite a 15-minute span in the nation’s capital.
“Every rink you go to, there’s so many banners up there and we only have one banner,” Josi said. “[Winning the division, and possibly more] was definitely one of our goals. It’s such a great organization, and I’m so lucky to have been a part of it for such a long time.”
“It’s pretty special,” Nashville defenseman Ryan Ellis said. “I think we’ve been working toward that goal the entire year, and really the entire time I’ve been here. A lot of people say it’s the hardest division in the League, and I think year in, year out we find out how hard it really is. Tonight, to add a banner up there, it’s a good feeling for the guys.”
Perhaps it was somewhat appropriate that Craig Smith played a notable role in the victory. As one of the longest-tenured Preds, having skated all 515 games of his career with Nashville, Smith has seen highs and lows over the seven seasons, but lately, it just keeps getting better and better.
“It’s big for the organization,” Smith said. “A lot of guys have put in a lot of hard work and a lot of time to produce a season like that. It’s cool so far and we’re having fun with it, but we’re staying game by game here. We’re having fun with each other and holding each other accountable to get out there and play for each other, so it’s great.”
The Predators began the season with plenty they wanted to acheive. Capturing a Central Division title was one of them. And there’s still so much more to do.
“It’s definitely something we’re proud of, but obviously the main goal remains to win the Stanley Cup,” Josi said.
With two tallies on Thursday, Craig Smith hit the 25-goal mark for the first time in his career.
Eeli Tolvanen was scratched for Nashville after skating in the first three games of his career against the Sabres, Lightning and Panthers.
The Predators will now return home to host their regular-season finale on Saturday night at Bridgestone Arena against the Columbus Blue Jackets. The 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs will begin next week, with Nashville set to host Games 1 and 2 of their Round One Series. A full postseason schedule will be released once the 2017-18 NHL regular season has concluded.
Pete Weber’s Postgame Report