NASHVILLE – Those in this town who hated to see him go will find it fitting that Kraken forward Eeli Tolvanen was the one to very likely put a dagger in the home team’s dwindling playoff hopes.
It’s become a sport of sorts for Nashville Predators fans to take shots at outgoing general manager David Poile for letting Tolvanen go to the Kraken in a December waiver-wire pickup. And seeing Tolvanen score twice for the Kraken in a 7-2 win Saturday that amounted to a playoff-style defensive lockdown of the Predators will certainly send the local online pundits into overdrive in the days ahead.
Tolvanen and Daniel Sprong had given the Kraken a two-goal lead in a first period in which they set a franchise record by limiting the Predators to just a single shot on goal. Then, after Tyson Barrie halved that deficit by converting a rebound past Philipp Grubauer on his team’s second shot of the day early in the middle frame, it would be Tolvanen providing some crucial breathing room on a rare mistake by Nashville goalie Juuse Saros with under three minutes to play until intermission.
Saros had raced out of his net to play the puck away from a hard-charging Oliver Bjorkstrand. Unfortunately for Saros, he hurled it toward the left faceoff circle and right on to the stick of Tolvanen — who fired it into the deserted net before Saros could race back to cover it.
The Kraken left the period with a 3-1 lead and a 29-11 shots margin. And despite the Predators getting a Matt Duchene deflection goal on their first shot of the third period 53 seconds in, Adam Larsson responded fewer than three minutes later on a nice pass out front from Jared McCann.
Matty Beniers then sealed it about five minutes later with a goal that lodged the 50th point of his rookie season. McCann added his 35th goal of the season two minutes later on a turnover and breakaway chance to send the Bridgestone Arena crowd scurrying for the exits.
Bjorkstand then capped the rout minutes later.
The Kraken snagged three of a possible four points in two games against Nashville, which puts a serious crimp on the Preds’ hopes of catching Winnipeg for the final Western Conference playoff spot. It should also end any realistic hope of Nashville catching the Kraken, who have an eight-point margin on a Preds team with just 10 contests remaining and only one game left in-hand.
As for the other remaining team that could deny the Kraken a playoff berth, Saturday’s result briefly lifted the Kraken nine points up on Calgary pending the outcome of its later game against San Jose. With just eight games left in their schedule — two fewer than the Kraken have — odds of the Flames now catching them appear to hinge between slim and none.
This was about as soft an easing back into the lineup as the Kraken could have given Grubauer, who returned a week after leaving a loss to Edmonton due to illness.
Saros had stymied the Kraken throughout Thursday’s loss, with Sprong scoring the only goal on a banked shot off the goaltender from behind the net. But Sprong got to him early in this one, poking home a rebound off a nice up-ice rush by Ryan Donato.
Tolvanen then cashed in on the power play with three minutes to go in the period, firing a snap shot past Saros short side and top shelf from the right circle.
Though Nashville scored fewer than two minutes into the second period, Grubauer came up big when the Predators finally tested him with some sustained pressure.
His biggest stop, midway through that middle period, came on a Philip Tomasino breakaway chance. Tomasino went for the deke, but Grubauer got his pad on the puck and turned it away to preserve his team’s one-goal lead.