In a way it made perfect sense.
An NHL playoff game between one team from a non-traditional hockey market and one from an area that is as tradition-rich as it gets went to the upstart based on things that happened in some unlikely places.
The Nashville Predators got two goals from areas that typically are non-threatening, i.e. below the goal line where Paul Gaustad was when he started the scoring. That was all it took for them to open the 2012 NHL playoffs with a 3-2 victory over the Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday before a sellout crowd at Bridgestone Arena.
“Let’s be honest, their first goal and their second goal were kind of seeing-eye pucks,” Detroit coach Mike Babcock said. “Those things happen in the playoffs.”
The exception was Gabriel Bourque’s game-winner. The rookie left wing capped off a memorable NHL playoff debut when he got to the slot and one-timed a pass from Nick Spaling into the net. That gave the Predators a 3-1 lead with 8:25 to play and earned him a place alongside Alexander Radulov (2007) as the only Nashville rookies ever to score two goals in a playoff game.
He put the Predators ahead to stay at 12:29 when he redirected a seemingly harmless Matt Halischuk shot from just inside the blue line.
“I just tried to make space for Halischuk, driving through and when I saw his shot … I didn’t really see it hit my stick and go in,” he said. “It was not really what I tried to do but it [went] in and I will take it.
“For sure, I was pretty nervous. … But after a couple shifts I felt better on the ice.”
The most-used piece of real estate within the arena was the penalty box, which was shocking give that Nashville and Detroit finished the regular season first and second, respectively, for the fewest penalty minutes in the league.
It was exactly the kind of thing the Predators did not need given that their top penalty killing defenseman, Hal Gill, was scratched because of an injury. Since being acquired in mid-February Gill averaged more than three minutes of shorthanded ice time per game — easily the most on the team.
Nashville was shorthanded eight times, twice more than Detroit. Coincidentally, both Red Wings’ goals were scored with a Nashville player in the box, the second of those with 2:07 to play.
“We could have used [Gill on Wednesday],” Nashville coach Barry Trotz said. “That’s why we got him. … When you’re playing Detroit, you can’t lose the special teams battles. They got both their goals on special teams there so we have to do better.”
The penalty parade started when Predators forward Brandon Yip was called for roughing 1:59 into the contest and ended with a roughing call against Shea Weber at the final horn. Nashville had a two-man advantage for 1:14 of the opening period, and Detroit played 5-on-3 for 44 seconds late in the third.
When all was said and done, the teams combined for 14 power plays that ate up more than 22 minutes of he contest. The longest stretch of 5-on-5 play lasted just 7:46 of the third period. No more than 3:28 ran off the clock in the first period without someone being whistled for something.
“Every game is going to be different and you just have to adjust to the game,” Nashville defenseman Ryan Suter said. “It’s tough for guys who don’t kill penalties or aren’t on the power play for them to get in the game because the flow is always stopping with whistles and penalties and power plays.”
The result was exactly what Nashville wanted against a team it has chased since 1998, when the most recent wave of NHL expansion began.
For the first time in franchise history, the Predators are up 1-0 in a playoff series with Game 2 (6:30 p.m., Friday) in their building. It is right where they wanted to be.
“We had a little bit of fortune,” Trotz said. “We threw pucks at the net and they went in. We need to do more of that.”