Lightning and Predators – The NHL’s Missed Rivalry Opportunity

Tampa Bay and Nashville in similar positions, but different conferences

Sometimes, despite a team’s game-planning and control of a given game, the other team’s goalie just says no.

On Thursday night at Amalie Arena, the Tampa Bay Lightning rebounded from a rough first period to control the action throughout the second and third, but Pekka Rinne of the Nashville Predators just wasn’t having it. The goalie saved 42 shots as the Predators took a 4-1 win in one of the best games of the early NHL season.

Nashville struck first, scoring 6:02 into the game as Kyle Turris deflected a long shot from Mattias Ekholm to sneak the puck past Andrei Vasilevskiy. For the most part, the first was a very even affair, with the difference being returning Nashville netminder Pekka Rinne. Rinne made a couple of spectacular saves among the 13 he provided in the period, including a sprawling pad save on a wide open shot from the stick of Brayden Point. The Predators went into the dressing room with a 2-0 lead, getting a second goal with just six seconds remaining in the time frame thanks to a tap-in of a goal from defenseman Roman Josi.

Tampa Bay was content to play physical hockey on Thursday night, a bit of a break from their norm. They were the ones pressing the action with hits, trying to push Nashville off the puck. Early on, that did not prevent the Predators from camping out in front of Vasilevskiy to wait for deflections, rebounds, or stray passes.

The Lightning were able to assert themselves considerably more in the second period, dominating possession and repeatedly firing shots in on Rinne. The hard work paid off 15:21 into the period as Slater Koekkoek ripped a shot past the Finnish goalie to cut the deficit in half and get the Lightning on the board.

Tampa Bay’s control of the game continued well into the third period, frustrating the Nashville defense and making Rinne have to stand on his head to keep the Predators in front, right up until Calle Jarnkrok got in on an odd-man rush to extend the lead to 3-1. Mikka Salomaki added an empty-net goal shortly after that, and Nashville sent the Lightning fans scrambling for the exits.

The rivalry that isn’t

It is really a shame that the Tampa Bay Lightning and Nashville Predators are in different conferences. The two teams only meet twice a year, once at each of their respective venues, but the two organizations have a lot in common.

Both are shining examples of what many NHL fans derisively call “non-traditional hockey markets” becoming hockey towns that could match intensity. with New England, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and America’s neighbor to the north. Much the way that Tampa is undoubtedly a hockey market, with the Lightning carving out an emphatic presence, the Predators have turned Nashville into a hockey hotbed.

These two teams could be, and probably should be, rivals with one another. It could be a great display of how far hockey can get itself into a city’s culture, even if it’s not a city that one would expect to love the sport. Instead, we are left with just two fleeting matchups a year, and the hope of a possible Stanley Cup Final between those two teams.

Lightning still without Hedman

Reigning NHL Norris Trophy winner for best defenseman Victor Hedman continues to sit out with an upper body injury, remaining on injured reserve.

Hedman’s absence puts a focus on the Bolts’ blue line and the depth the organization has been trying to put along that line. Mikhail Sergachev is no longer a rookie, and big things are expected for the young defenseman. Ryan McDonagh was the headline piece in a trade deadline move for the Lightning last season for just this purpose. Braydon Coburn provided the spark the Lightning needed on Tuesday night in a rout of the Devils.

For Thursday night, the blue line held just fine. The team’s major mistakes came off bad sequences from forwards, not defenseman, whereas the Lightning’s lone goal came from Slater Koekkoek, his first of the season.

What’s Next For Bolts

The Tampa Bay Lightning head out on an international road trip over the weekend for back-to-back games on Saturday and Sunday with the Ottawa Senators and Montreal Canadiens respectively.

Playing on two straight nights means the Lightning are going to have to rely on backup goaltender Louis Domingue to put them in position to win one of the two games. This is where a backup netminder is mission-critical, those back-to-back road games that would be otherwise exhausting on even a young goalie like Vasilevskiy.

These are two games in which the Lightning will be overwhelming favorites, but both the Senators and Canadiens have defied low expectations so far this year to make some waves in the Eastern Conference. Ottawa is below .500, yes, but they were also expected to be among the league’s worst teams. Montreal is 6-3-2 as of Thursday, lurking in the Atlantic Division. Of course, in weak times and strong alike, it is hard for any team to come into Montreal and take a win.

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Tim Williams has been covering sports since his days as a student at Northeastern University covering events such as the Beanpot. In the thirteen years since, he has covered college hockey, the NFL, Major League Baseball, the PGA Tour, and the National Hockey League. A native of the Tampa Bay area, Tim has returned home after living much of his life in the northeast, including sixteen years in the Boston area. These days the Managing Editor of Sports Talk Florida can be found on Florida's golf courses when he's not working.