By Ron Wynn
The Nashville Predators’ spirited bid to upset the Carolina Hurricanes ended Thursday night when Sebastian Aho’s second goal of the game competed a three-goal rally and gave the Hurricanes a 4-3 victory in overtime. The goal came very quickly, at the 1:06 mark, and ended a series that saw the final four games go to overtime, the Predators come back from being down 2-0, and the Hurricanes overcome one-goal deficits in Games 5 and 6 to advance to the second round against defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay.
The Predators led 3-1 in the second period, but couldn’t hold the lead. They had gotten the game’s first goal early in the opening period as Nick Cousins deflected an Erik Haula shot past Alex Nedejkovic, but Carolina’s Brock McGinn tied it at 1-1. The Predators regained the lead in the second period on a Mikael Granlund goal, then went ahead 3-1 when Ryan Johansen scored on a deflection of a shot by Roman Josi.
But with the largest crowd of the NHL season (14, 107) roaring, the Hurricanes made it 3-2 when Aho got his first goal on a deflection of a Dougie Hamilton shot. Then Hamilton tied it with 6:01 left in regulation, as Juuse Saros’ heroic efforts to keep the Predators in front (13 saves in the period to that point) couldn’t prevent Carolina from tying the score. Then Aho’s goal in overtime ended the series. He tipped in Jacob Slavin’s long shot.
The Predators were huge underdogs coming into this series, but showed they could compete with one of the teams favored to win the Stanley Cup. After the first two games, where they were beaten by multi-goal margins, the Predators won two straight double-overtime contests and had third period leads in Games 5 and 6. The playoff performance came on the heels of a second half where they won 21 of their last 28 games and clinched a playoff spot.
They also were able to work several new players into the rotation, and overcome a wave of injuries to key veterans. Now the off-season questions will begin, particularly with regards to veteran goalie Pekka Rinne, for years a team mainstay. He didn’t play a single minute in the playoffs and his contract is ending. Viktor Arvidsson was hurt late in the regular season and didn’t see action in the critical playoff games as well.
Still, for a team many wrote off earlier in the season when they were in seventh place, the Predators’ second-half push and playoff performance are things to celebrate and savor, despite the Game 6 loss.