On Tuesday night, it seemed Austin Watson and the Nashville Predators were auditioning for Tate’s job.
The Predators laid the body all over the ice, matching the St. Louis Blues’ heavy style in a 2-1 win in Game Four. Watson was credited with a team-high eight hits, while Miikka Salomaki was credited with five.
Some of Watson’s monstrous checks got the Bridgestone Arena crowd in a tizzy. Of course, that does not go unnoticed on the ice.
“It’s exciting,” Watson said of some of his big hits. “I don’t think it compares to scoring a goal, but it feels good. Our fans are unbelievable, and any time you can get something done on the ice, whether it be a scoring chance or a hit or a good defensive play that gets our crowd going and gets them screaming, it’s great for our bench and they give us a lot of life.”
— steph (@myregularface) May 3, 2017
This was the third game of the series in which both teams combined for more than 60 hits. That seems to be the norm when it comes to the Blues, who feature numerous large human beings on their roster, including Ryan Reaves and Colton Parayko. However, it was two of the Predators’ hard-hitters, Watson and Salomaki, that stole the show tonight.
Watson said that his team needed to go toe-to-toe with the Blues in terms of physicality in order to win.
“I think, yeah, it gets amped up a little bit, especially when you’re playing a team that plays a brand of hockey that’s physical, that’s strong,” he said. “They’ve got big defensemen that you need to play physical on, and they bring that to the table, so we’ve got to be able to do the same.”
The entire second round series has been physical and grueling, but Game Four had a more malicious edge to it. For the first time really all series, physical tensions on the ice turned to fisticuffs. At 4:11 of the third period, the playoff equivalent of a line brawl broke out, with Reaves and Joel Edmundson receiving roughing minors for St. Louis, and Cody McLeod getting one for Nashville.
On the ensuing power play, the Predators found the back of the net for the first time all night on a Ryan Ellis shot through a scramble in front of the net. Then, just six seconds after the goal, Edmundson went after P.K. Subban’s head away from the play, sending Subban down the tunnel with an inexplicable embellishment call, and Edmundson back to the box.
In a best-of-seven second round series between bitter division rivals, those kinds of malicious kerfuffles are bound to pop up.
“You see a team enough in a short period of time, I think it’s bound to happen,” Watson said. “We’re equipped to handle that. We want to stay disciplined, I think they do too. But, sometimes in a hockey game, that happens.”
Between the first and second round series, there is a sharp distinction between the way the Predators wore down the Blackhawks with their speed, skill and depth, and the way they beat the Blues at their own game with some physicality. Some may think that in order to bring that physical edge, that speedy, offensive game goes away. On the contrary, with the way the Predators have been playing, physicality and speedy offense are not mutually exclusive.
“You need to play physical and that’s how you get the chances and stuff,” said Salomaki. “I think it’s only a good thing to be physical.”
Watson also thought his team’s physicality was necessary against a gritty team like St. Louis.
“You’ve got to be physical and you’ve got to put pucks to the net,” he said. “We want to put as many pucks to the net as we can. Obviously, it creates for us, but they do such a great job defending, and like you said, they’re such a big, physical team. They’re making it hard on us, and it’s a battle out there. We just want to continue with that mindset.”
With the win, the Predators are in control of this series, and now have three opportunities to clinch their first-ever Western Conference Final berth. The Blues are on the ropes, and if Game Four featured that much malicious chippiness, Game Five could turn ugly in a jiffy. Nashville appears to have struck a nerve with St. Louis, but according to Salomaki, that’s none of their concern.
“We don’t really think of it like that,” Salomaki said. “We just need to play our own game. We don’t worry about them too much. We just keep playing.”
Game Five between the Predators and Blues is scheduled for Friday night at 7 PM central in St. Louis.