Predators' struggles to hold third-period leads unprecedented

Sunday, April 3, 2011 at 8:53pm

It’s probable that Barry Trotz simply wanted to present an air of confidence when he tried to rationalize Saturday’s 4-3 overtime loss to the Detroit Red Wings with – among other things – a ludicrous assessment of how difficult it is to protect a three-goal lead.

Then again, it’s possible that he has seen his team blow so many third-period advantages this season that such an occurrence has lost its shock value for the Nashville Predators head coach.

The latest came after Nashville built a 3-0 cushion fewer than three minutes into the second period. Fewer than three minutes after that, the Red Wings were back within one. They got the equalizer early in the third period and won it in the extra period.

“The three-goal lead is sometimes difficult to hold on to,” Trotz said. “It used to be the two-goal lead. Now, because the game is played without the hooking and holding, it’s the three-goal lead. Mentally, you think you’ve got some breathing room but then the [other] team gets one and the momentum swings.”

The loss to Detroit was Nashville’s eighth this season – a franchise record – in a game it led after two periods.

At 29-3-5, the Predators have earned 78.4 percent of possible points when ahead after 40 minutes, which ranks 26th best in the NHL and easily is on pace for the team’s lowest in the league’s post-lockout era. Since those rules changes that were instituted with the start of the 2005-06 campaign, Nashville never has finished in the bottom half of the league in that category.

Among Western Conference teams, only last-place Edmonton has a worse success rate.

The eight defeats in that situation equals the number of the previous three seasons combined and is tied with the New York Islanders, an Eastern Conference also-ran, for the most in the league. Their last two losses – Detroit on Saturday and Vancouver last Tuesday – came when Nashville took a lead into the third period. 

“You’ve got to keep your urgency level and your determination extremely high,” Trotz conceded. “As soon as you get a lead or two, you’re going to get a push-back. There are a lot of proud athletes in this game and you’re going to have to weather that storm. You’ve got play with detail, ply with determination and urgency.”

Even when the Predators have held on to leads in recent games, it’s tough to say they met those criteria as they did so.

In their only victory in three games last week – 3-2 at Colorado on Tuesday – they allowed two goals in the final seven minutes. One week prior to that, a slew of third-period penalties helped turn a 5-1 lead over Anaheim into a 5-4, down-to-the-wire triumph.

Nashville has allowed nine third-period goals in the last five games and has dropped out of the top half of the league in goals-against over the final 20 minutes of regulation. For the season, they have allowed 72 in third, but 41 of those have come during the second half of the season.

The good news for the Predators is that they have had more opportunities than usual to stumble in the third period.

They’ve carried the lead into the final period 37 times, which already is six more than a year ago and the second-highest total of all-time. The 2006-07 Predators did it in exactly half of the 82 games but blew it just six times.

“You can’t take your foot off the gas,” defenseman Ryan Suter said. “You have to keep going on them. You sit back – and with the talent that there is out there in the league – if you sit back, it’s going to be in the back of your net.”

And the Predators are going to be back in the losing column in a game they should have won.