WINNIPEG, Manitoba — P.K. Subban sat on a bench in the Nashville Predators’ cramped locker room at Bell MTS Place late Tuesday, a nasty gash across his nose oozing blood and another fresh cut marking his right cheek. He was a mess.
Just like his team in the decisive stretch of a tied game in a tied series that might end up producing this year’s Stanley Cup champion. Just like his answer to the question all Predators fans had to be screaming after a 3-0 lead in Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals turned into a disastrous 7-4 loss: What in the world was up with all the penalties?
“Well, you know, I went to put my stick on (Nik Ehlers’) stick, I think it rode up his stick and hit him in the face,” Subban said of his penalty, the one of the three in succession that led to the Jets’ winning goal, and one of five in the period and seven on the night. “I don’t know, you guys saw the replay, I didn’t see it. Is that what happened? Yeah, so I put it on his stick and it just rode up and it was a bad bounce and, you’ve got to stay out of the box. But that’s a tough break.
“But I think there’s some frustration on our side when things happen on the ice and they get one, two, three, four, five different shots at guys after the whistle and stuff like that. Poke at our goaltender. That’s not the reason that we lost, but those things can be frustrating. And then they called two penalties at the end on us. But we have to be better-disciplined.”
In trying to explain things, Subban was all over the place. Just like the Predators in what can only be called a collapse. Just like this series, which arrives at a Game 4 in the Jets’ rocking lair Thursday that will serve as a defining moment for this Nashville team. The Predators have answered every time, all season, in winning the Presidents’ Trophy and putting themselves in position to return to the Cup final and win it.
But this is the tallest order yet, by far, because the Jets are that good. Because the building is that tough. And because the Predators had an answer Tuesday night. They had control. And in two stretches of unforgivable mindlessness, they gave it up.
The first came in the second period. The building was all primed to empty out quietly, but in a span of 2 minutes and 51 seconds, it was celebrating a tie game with all the decibels it could muster.
“Yeah, we just stopped playing,” Predators defenseman Ryan Ellis said. “Clear as day.”
It was 4-3 Jets when Filip Forsberg tied it with a power-play goal with 12:20 left in the third period. Viktor Arvidsson broke free for what might have been the game-winning goal — Connor Hellebuyck robbed him with the glove — and the Predators had other chances. They appeared to have the upper hand, after getting past third-period penalties from Nick Bonino (fighting with Jacob Trouba) and Colton Sissons (roughing).
But then the NHL’s most-penalized team in the regular season had a relapse it couldn’t overcome. Kevin Fiala was called for tripping. Seven seconds after that penalty expired, Subban sent his team right back on the penalty kill. Blake Wheeler got the winner past Pekka Rinne on a rebound. Rinne was called for a slash right after that, an admitted act of frustration.
“That wasn’t smart,” Rinne said. “At that point of the game, bad penalty. It’s just emotions got the best of me. When you look at the replay, it’s just a tap on the back. I don’t know, I’ll leave it at that.”
Look, the Predators have some legitimate complaints. Rinne’s mask was loose before Wheeler’s goal. Kyle Connor tripped Ellis late in the second, allowing Patrik Laine to gather a puck and send it to Dustin Byfuglien for the goal to go up 4-3. Peter Laviolette screamed with all his might from the bench at the time and reiterated his belief that it was a trip after the game.
He also said of all such complaints: “It’s over.” If the Preds get too caught up in this stuff, they will lose this series, in short order.
“I mean, I’m not going to comment on the officiating,” Subban said before doing just that, “but I’m standing at the faceoff, I get a shot in the back of the head five times or a shot in the shoulder and I’ve just got my stick on the ice. You know, I wonder if I do that, what happens? If I give (Mark) Scheifele a couple shots like that, I don’t know.”
The officials will offend again. Worrying about them is not the answer. Neither is worrying excessively about committing penalties, because any reduction in aggression will not work. Pulling Rinne is not the answer. Neither is slowing things down, even if that’s an understandable notion with the Jets at 15 goals in three games.
The answer is finding the smart, attacking team that led 3-0 Tuesday and easily could have been up 5-0. And getting rid of the disorganized, overly emotional one that doesn’t need to be on the ice for long to undo this Nashville run.