For nine minutes on Monday, the Nashville Predators and the 16,501 who came out to welcome them home received a history lesson.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, in just their third visit all-time to the Sommet Center, looked for all the world like one of the NHL’s most storied franchises, the one which has won 13 Stanley Cup titles – second only to the Montreal Canadiens. Never mind that the last of those championships came in 1966-67 or that the current version of the Leafs came into the contest with fewer points than all but two of the 30 teams in the league.
Toronto poured in three goals on eight shots in those opening nine minutes and chased Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne from between the pipes.
Such starts seemed like a distant memory for the Predators who had not allowed three first-period goals since Dec. 2 at Minnesota and had not trailed by three in the opening stanza since back-to-back early four-goal deficits on Oct. 12 and 14.
Still, it was enough that their three-game win streak – all on the road – eventually was rendered a thing of the past with a 4-3 defeat. Nashville rallied and tied it early in the third period but gave up the game-winner when Toronto forward Phil Kessel scored with 5:48 to play.
“It’s funny, because on the bench I wasn’t really worried at any point,” forward Ryan Jones said. “We have a great team in here and we’ve come back a lot of times. … So when we got that first goal, things started going our way and I wasn’t surprised at all when we got a couple more.
“When Kessel buried that goal, it deflated us a little bit, but even then I thought we were going to come back.”
The Predators tied it when Jones and defenseman Cody Franson scored on consecutive shots early in the third. Franson struck first with a point shot, and Jones got his 1:58 later on a redirection. At the time, there was still 13:41 to play.
Nashville’s first goal finally came with 2:22 to play in the second period when Marcel Goc cleaned up a loose puck in front of the Leafs’ net.
“You need a lot of elements in your game – you have to have a lot of details, a lot of commitment and a lot of emotion,” coach Barry Trotz said. “I thought we were emotional. We were good that way. It was just the details and the commitment to those details wasn’t real strong (at the start).”
In particular, the Predators lacked puck security. The Maple Leafs’ first two goals were the result of turnovers. By the end of the first period, Nashville had committed 10 turnovers to Toronto’s three.
The home team gave it away just six more times in the final 40 minutes yet came away with no points.
“We just gave up too many turnovers at the beginning of the game and they capitalized on them,” captain Jason Arnott said. “Before we knew it, it was 3-0 and we were behind the 8-ball. It took us a couple periods to get going but we battled back.
“The sad thing is we didn’t come out with a point.”
• Goalie Dan Ellis made 13 saves on the 14 shots he faced in relief of Rinne but still got the loss because the Predators had gotten even before Toronto scored the game-winner.
It was Ellis’ ninth regulation loss of the season, one more than Rinne.
“I thought Ellie was the star of the game,” Trotz said. “Once we made the change, Ellie made two or three big saves … (when) they could have run away with it.”
• Nashville has lost three of the last four at home, but has won five straight on the road. For the season, 32 of its 61 points have come in 24 road games while 25 home games have yielded 29 points.
“We’ve traditionally been a pretty strong home team,” Trotz said. “… We have to find that again.”
• Arnott and Jerred Smithson each returned after having missed time with injuries. Smithson was injured early in a Dec. 22 contest at Vancouver and sat out 11 games, and Arnott missed four after being hurt Jan. 7 against Calgary.
“You could tell there was a little bit of rust there,” Trotz said. “Just having the steam to play at a high level for that number of minutes.”
• Goc’s goal was his 10th of the season, which gave the Predators six forwards with at least that number – Patric Hornqvist 19, Martin Erat 15, Arnott 12, Steve Sullivan 10, David Legwand 10 and Goc.
Only seven Nashville forwards scored 10 or more in all of 2008-09.