Decisions. Decisions. Decisions.
Most will talk about the lineup choices coach Barry Trotz made for Game 4 of the Nashville Predators’ Western Conference semifinal series with the Phoenix Coyotes on Friday. There is no way to know for certain, though, what effect the absence of skillful forwards Alexander Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn had, although without them the Predators failed to convert numerous quality chances.
On the other hand, the impact of center Paul Gaustad’s decision to fight with Phoenix’s Kyle Chipchura exactly halfway through the first period was much easier to quantify. In the time the defensive/faceoff specialist was in the box Nashville lost five of seven draws, gave up two shots and registered none and —this is the big one — allowed a goal.
“Whenever someone goes out and does something like that you have to build off his energy,” Nashville defenseman Ryan Suter said. “I thought we did that but then it was kind of a lucky goal they got. But it doesn’t matter — it was a goal.”
The only goal.
Shane Doan’s backhand shot deflected off the stick of defenseman Roman Josi and fluttered past goalie Pekka Rinne at 14:25 of the first period. That was it for the scoring and, with a 1-0 loss before a sellout crowd at Bridgestone Arena, Nashville fell behind 3-1 in the series with Game 5 scheduled for Monday in Glendale, Ariz.
The score came 12 seconds after Mike Fisher lost a faceoff in the neutral zone.
“The game went exactly how we kind of anticipated,” Phoenix coach Dave Tippett said. “I thought it was going to be a tightly contested [game]. Maybe a break here or there that gives one team an edge. That’s exactly what happened.”
Gaustad sought out Chipchura a little more than three minutes after Coyotes defenseman Rostislav Klesla delivered an illegal hit from behind to Predators forward Matt Halischuk, one of two who played in place of Radulov and Kostitsyn for the second straight game.
Klesla was assessed a two-minute penalty for boarding. Gaustad was not satisfied. So he and Chipchura agreed to address it further. Immediately off a faceoff at center ice they went at it.
“It’s pushing back in the playoffs,” Gaustad said. “They’re a hard-working team and so are we and those things happen.
“Right away I thought everybody got back to work in the grinding style. They scored [4:25] later, but I thought our team responded well.”
Gaustad clearly got the better of the encounter, but things turned out for the worst.
The team that has scored first has won every Predators’ playoff game this postseason. In that regard, this one was no different.
“To win like this is exciting because our goaltender’s so good and we know that we go as far as he takes us,” Doan, the Coyotes captain said. “… We talked about how they were going to push hard [Friday] night and how we had to be better.”
That is not to say that Trotz’s lineup choices could not be second-guessed.
Without Radulov, their leading scorer in the postseason, and Kostitsyn, whose three goals are tied for team-high, the Predators were outshot 25-24 and held scoreless for the first time this postseason. That after they shut out Phoenix 2-0 in Game 3 while those two players said out for disciplinary reasons.
The decision to keep the pair on the bench for this one was to try and repeat the success of the previous contest.
Nashville did create opportunities on offense. It simply failed to finish. Most notably, in the second period Patric Hornqvist shot the puck over a wide open net from just outside the crease.
The only other time in these playoffs Trotz did not make at least one change to his lineup from one game to the next was Games 1 and 2 of the first-round series with Detroit. Nashville won the first and lost the second that time also.
“How would I defend it?” Trotz said. “I don’t think I have to defend it. I mean, the guys created chances. We got chances. … You could say the what-ifs. Maybe they could have made a difference, but we’ll never know that. The guys who played, played well and created lots of chances. We just have to bury one of them.”
They thought they had done exactly that with 7:12 to play when, after a scramble in front, the puck ended up in the Phoenix net. Referees immediately waved it off and their ruling was upheld by a video review.
The official word, depending on who you ask, was either that the play was blown dead, was intended to be blown dead, that Hornqvist shoved goalie Mike Smith into the net while the puck was underneath Smith or some combination of those.
Whatever the referee’s decision, the Predators did not agree with it.