ashton-remax_NEWThe “tough guy” or “enforcer” is a role that’s on the decline in the NHL.

However, a “tough guy” doesn’t just have to be a fighter or a “goon.” He can be a guy that lays it all on the line and plays with no regard for his own safety or for human life. He can be the guy that goes to the dirty areas and makes the gritty plays when needed.

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That guy is Austin Watson, and those traits were on display in a 1-0 win for the Nashville Predators over the Vegas Golden Knights.

In the second period, Vegas was on the power play and buzzing for the first goal of the game. A shot slid through goaltender Juuse Saros’ pads and trickled towards the open net. Without hesitation, Watson got behind his netminder and poked the puck out with his stick. When the puck careened back towards the goal line, he stuck his skate out and kept the puck out again as he fell to the ice.

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That kind of play in a vulnerable position takes guts. And there’s no better example of guts than Austin Watson, who answered questions with his usual toothless grin after the game.

“You’re not really concerned about your body at the time,” he said. “You’re concerned about helping your team get two points.”

That particular play by Watson preserved a Saros shutout that would continue for the full 60 minutes. The scoreless tie would only be broken by a third-period Kevin Fiala snipe with 12:00 remaining in the third period.

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Given how tight the game was, Watson’s instincts proved invaluable.

“Yeah, we had talked about collapsing back to the net,” he said. “They were shooting with some good traffic and really trying to just get rebounds. That squeaked behind there and I saw the first one and I was kind of like ‘Oh boy, this didn’t get through the traffic’ and it was coming right back at me. I guess instinctual just to kick a leg out at it.”

The instinct and determination needed to make that type of play are not exclusive to Watson. Goal-line saves have been a staple of Predators defensive hockey for years. As much as this team preaches offense, those types of tough defensive plays are as much a part of this team’s identity as scoring goals.

As far back as 2014, guys like Ryan Ellis were making stops like Watson’s on the goal line.

Watson is just a big part of a larger team mentality when it comes to putting your body on the line.

“Really whatever you can do to keep it out of the net,” he said. “It’s desperation time there and everybody’s in there trying to find the puck, trying to get in front of it. Tonight it was me, we’ve seen Ryan Ellis do it a bunch of times. It’s desperate.”

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In addition to the potentially game-saving block, Watson provided two shots on goal, three hits (leading the team) and one blocked shot. The Predators as a whole led the Golden Knights in blocked shots 23 to 17. They also beat Vegas in hits 19 to 15.

That toughness on display was nothing new to head coach Peter Laviolette.

“I think everybody knows that Watty is willing to do that,” he said. “Certainly that was a big play at the time in the crease like that to be able to have the whereabouts to kick that puck out of the way before it crossed the line, it was pretty close. And then, even at the end, Watty is a guy that does that all of the time. I thought we had big blocks at the end, Salomaki had a couple of big blocks. That’s part of winning hockey.”

While the Predators didn’t immediately capitalize on the block and killed penalty, it kept a tight game even tighter and allowed Saros to complete his shutout. The young Finnish netminder knows he couldn’t have done it without some help from his friends.

“Obviously gotta thank those guys that do that night in and night out and it’s a big thing for the team,” Saros said.

The Predators will take on the Arizona Coyotes at Bridgestone Arena on Thursday.

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