Kevin Woodley – NHL.com Correspondent
VANCOUVER, BC – January 26: Ryan Miller #30 of the Vancouver Canucks has his mask fall off after a shot on net. Austin Watson #51 of the Nashville Predators and Luca Sbisa #5 of the Vancouver Canucks look on during their NHL game at Rogers Arena on January 26, 2016 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Derek Cain / ISN)
VANCOUVER — Nashville Predators forward James Neal didn’t hesitate before shooting the winning goal over Vancouver Canucks goalie Ryan Miller‘s glove on Tuesday.
Neal didn’t hesitate before making a bold assessment about how important the win was either.
Neal scored with 4:44 left in the third period to lift Nashville to a 2-1 victory against Vancouver at Rogers Arena. The Predators have won three straight games, something they hadn’t accomplished in more than three months.
“Stanley Cup-important, I think you can say,” Neal said. “Playoffs-important.”
Craig Smith scored 59 seconds into the game, and Pekka Rinne made 28 saves for the Predators (23-18-8), who hadn’t won three in a row since Oct. 17-22.
Nashville is one point behind the Colorado Avalanche for the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Western Conference.
VANCOUVER, BC – January 26: James Neal #18 of the Nashville Predators celebrates his game winning goal late in the 3rd period against the Vancouver Canucks during their NHL game at Rogers Arena on January 26, 2016 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Derek Cain / ISN)
But with two-and-a-half months before the playoffs start, Rinne said the victory in Vancouver means more between the ears than in the standings.
“It was very crucial not only looking at the standings,” Rinne said, “but crucial mentally and as a team for our confidence and the way you feel about yourself and your game.”
Despite jumping out to a fast start and an early lead, the Predators were being outshot 24-11 heading into the third period. But Nashville controlled the play in the third and were up 8-2 in shots when Neal put them ahead by taking advantage of a bad line change for Vancouver.
With the Canucks defensemen going off at the same time, Predators defenseman Barret Jackman threw the puck across the ice and off the boards to a streaking Neal, who beat Miller over the glove with a wrist shot from just above the right faceoff dot.
VANCOUVER, BC – January 26: Mike Fisher #12 of the Nashville Predators screens Ryan Miller #30 of the Vancouver Canucks as an incoming shot heads their way during their NHL game at Rogers Arena on January 26, 2016 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Derek Cain / ISN)
“[Jackman] made a great play to lay one off the wall, and they were going for a change, so I was able to jump into a spot and get the puck on my stick and get it off as quick as I can,” said Neal, whose 18 goals lead Nashville. “He made a great save on me earlier with the blocker, so if I had another chance, I was going to go high glove on him.”
It was a tough way to lose for the Canucks, who concluded a six-game road trip by blowing a two-goal third-period lead in a 5-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday.
“Those are tough points to lose, on something you could have avoided,” coach Willie Desjardins said.
The Canucks have talked about making better changes, Desjardins said.
VANCOUVER, BC – January 26: Brandon Sutter #21 of the Vancouver Canucks shoots the puck past Pekka Rinne #35 of the Nashville Predators for a 1st period goal during their NHL game at Rogers Arena on January 26, 2016 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Derek Cain / ISN)
Vancouver center Brandon Sutter scored in his first game back after missing 33 with a sports hernia that required surgery, but it was hard to find a lot of positives.
“We can’t give up an easy goal like that,” he said. “We kind of just gave them that one.”
The Canucks had five shots in the third period, but most came during a late power play with Miller pulled. They spent most of the period in their own end.
“It looked like they had a purpose in the third period,” Miller said. “For the most part, we were matching it. It just came down to a mistake.”
The game started with a mistake too.
The Predators, who have won the first three of a four-game road trip that wraps up against the Calgary Flames on Wednesday, jumped out to an early lead when Smith drove the net unchecked to deflect a Mike Fisher pass over Miller’s glove.
The Canucks didn’t have a shot on goal until 6:10 of the first period, but they tied it 1-1 on a give-and-go between Sutter and Daniel Sedin with 8:21 left in the period.
Sutter, who was injured Nov. 10 and had surgery Dec. 1, dropped a pass for Sedin as they came over the blue line, then cut over to the right slot for the return pass, one-touching it over the pad and past the outstretched glove of a sliding Rinne.
“Danny made a good play; you don’t want to miss those ones,” Sutter said. “It was a good way to get started. After that, I felt like I got my legs going a bit.”
Sutter, who returned to the No.1 center spot of injured captain Henrik Sedin, had a great chance to score again on a shorthanded breakaway less than two minutes later, making a great deke that had Rinne down and out before missing wide with a backhand.
VANCOUVER, BC – January 26: Pekka Rinne #35 of the Nashville Predators during their NHL game against the Vancouver Canucks at Rogers Arena on January 26, 2016 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Derek Cain /)
Rinne, who has made saves on 77 of 80 shots on the road trip, made a point-blank save against Vancouver’s Sven Baertschi late in the second period and got his right pad on a Bo Horvat tip with the Canucks on the power play in the final seconds.
Rinne gave up 15 goals in five starts before the road trip but has allowed fewer than two goals in three straight games for the first time since the first three games of the season.
“I feel like we are putting something together here, as a team and personally too,” Rinne said.
The Canucks are off until after the NHL All-Star break. Their next game is Feb. 4, when they host the Columbus Blue Jackets. Sutter is looking forward to it.
“The first few shifts bring you back to reality a bit,” Sutter said. “As the game went on, I felt better and better. It’s good to get that first one out of the way.”