Neal scores late winner to lift Predators over Canucks 2-1
VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — James Neal was not about to downplay the importance of Nashville’s three-game winning streak.
“We’re fighting to play for a Stanley Cup here. And right now with how tight the West is, you have to do anything you can to grab points to get into the playoffs,” he said. “That’s where our team is at.”
Neal scored late in the third period Tuesday night to give the Predators a 2-1 victory over the Vancouver Canucks that left Nashville one point behind Minnesota and Colorado for a wild-card spot.
Pekka Rinne stopped 28 shots and Craig Smith had the other goal for Nashville, which improved to 3-0 on a four-game Western Conference road swing. The trip has included 4-1 wins at both Winnipeg and Edmonton, and will finish Wednesday in Calgary.
“I think the guys know exactly where we are at when the game is on the line in the third period,” Predators coach Peter Laviolette said. “Our third period was excellent the first two games of this trip and it was excellent tonight.”
Brandon Sutter scored for the Canucks, who played their last game before the All-Star break. Vancouver just returned from a 10-day road trip that resulted in a 3-2-1 record.
Ryan Miller made 17 saves in his first home start since Dec. 9 for Vancouver.
The Predators, sixth in the Central Division, broke through with 4:44 left on a bad Canucks line change. Neal took a pass from defenseman Barrett Jackman and fired the puck from the faceoff dot, beating Miller glove side for the go-ahead goal.
“We have talked about (line changes),” Canucks coach Willie Desjardins said. “It’s something that we need to be better at. Those are tough points to lose, on something you could have avoided.”
Vancouver had a power-play chance at the end of the game but couldn’t force overtime.
Nashville jumped out to a 1-0 lead less than 2 minutes in when Mike Fisher set up Smith, who lifted the puck over Miller’s shoulder after easily getting around Canucks defenseman Ben Hutton.
Sutter, thrust into the center position on the top line due to Henrik Sedin’s injury, found immediate chemistry with Daniel Sedin. Sutter took a beautiful return pass from Daniel Sedin and one-timed it past Rinne to tie the score at 11:39.
It was Sutter’s first game since sustaining a sports hernia on Nov. 10.
“It felt good (but) it takes a little time,” Sutter said. “The body felt good. It’s a nice relief to get that over with.”
Sutter had a great chance on a short-handed breakaway minutes later, but missed the open net with Rinne out of position.
“I don’t know what happened,” Sutter said. “I missed the net by 2 feet. It’s unfortunate, but that’s part of the game.”
The Predators shot sparingly in the first and second periods. Even with two power plays, including a tripping call on Matt Bartkowski midway through the second, Nashville had only 11 shots going into the third compared to Vancouver’s 24.
However, Rinne was tested more often, especially during a Canucks power play with 5 minutes left in the second when he made saves on Daniel Sedin and Sven Baertschi to keep the score tied.
Nashville came out with increased intensity in the third and began firing more shots at Miller.
“It was a good third period by our guys,” Laviolette said. “We were kind of sleeping for a little bit, but third period we were really good.”
NOTES: Vancouver forward Brandon Prust was a healthy scratch for the third straight game. ... Henrik Sedin missed his fourth consecutive game with an upper-body injury.