Cody Franson knows as well as anybody just how close the Nashville Predators came to a victory on Thursday.
It was Franson, a defenseman, who crashed down the slot as J.P. Dumont ripped a shot with 2:21 to play in overtime. The puck was stopped but flipped over the left shoulder of Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and into the crease, where it spun to a stop. Just before Franson got there to clean up the rebound, Penguins’ forward Pascal Dupuis swept the puck to safety.
A mere 70 seconds later Pittsburgh scored and sent the Predators to their third straight overtime defeat, this one 4-3  before a sellout crowd of 17,113 at Bridgestone Arena.
“It was right there,” Franson said. “I was going to just lay down and hope it hit me on the way out and then go back in. I was just half a second too late. … It was inches.”
Narrow as the margin between victory and defeat was in that moment, it ultimately was a vast disparity in individual skill level that was the difference.
Pittsburgh got major offensive contributions from its top players, who annually are among the NHL’s leading scorers. Chief among them was Sidney Crosby, who had two goals and the primary assist on Kris Letang’s game-winner. Evgeni Malkin had a goal and an assist, and Letang, an offensive defenseman, had one goal and two assists.
Crosby and Malkin had five shots each in the third period, which was twice as many as the entire Nashville team in that same stretch. Crosby got his second goal at 12:56 of the final period – with assists by Malkin and Letang – as the Penguins came from behind for the third time.
“We don’t get to see Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin very often, and when we do … up close and personal, they’re pretty dynamic,” coach Barry Trotz said. “They can do some great things. … They’re great players. They made the plays they needed to make.”
The longest the Predators held the lead was after their first goal, which David Legwand scored in the opening minute of play. It was 20:01 before the Penguins answered that one on Malkin’s goal in the opening minute of the second.
It was 5:48 after Franson made it 2-1 in the second that Pittsburgh pulled even, and 7:48 after Patric Hornqvist’s goal in the third that Crosby made it 3-3.
“That was an outstanding hockey game on both ends,” Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said. “It felt like something you would see more in April or May than in October. Our guys had to keep battling and keep working.
“… Our guys kept responding.”
In so doing, they kept it close enough to get the one goal that finally settled it.
“We had our foot on the pedal and didn’t stomp on it,” forward Jerred Smithson said. “We had the chance to pull away and keep them down and we let up. We just made some mistakes that you can’t make, and they made us pay.”
• Crosby’s first goal came on a shot from a near-impossible angle on the left wing. Rather than pass to a teammate headed toward the far post, though, he directed it on net, and the puck deflected off the pad of goalie Pekka Rinne.
“I was cheating for the pass and he saw that,” Rinne said. “He just outsmarted me.”
• Franson’s goal was on the power play, Nashville’s first in three games. … Hornqvist’s goal was Nashville’s first in the third period in four games. … The Predators have scored in the first period in four straight contests.
• Earlier in the day the Predators announced the signing of veteran forward Steve Begin to a two-way contract (an NHL salary of $550,000 and an AHL salary of $105,000).
The 32-year-old who has 535 penalty minutes and 100 points in 486 career NHL games was assigned to Milwaukee.