Predators back on the prowl

NASHVILLE -- These are nights in a playoff journey a team remembers.

If the Nashville Predators wrap their hands around the Stanley Cup next month, they'll look back at Game 3 of their second-round series with the Phoenix Coyotes as a crystalizing moment.

OK, we're getting ahead of ourselves -- after all, the Coyotes still lead the series 2-1 -- but don't underestimate the magnitude of the past 48 hours for the Predators franchise.

After the gutsy decision to bench night owls Alexander Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn, and their season essentially on the line staring a possible 3-0 series deficit in the face, Nashville rallied back with a classic Predators performance Wednesday night in a 2-0 win over the Coyotes.

"If there's anything I was really proud of, there's probably two things: (A) We got back to more of our identity, and (B) the group was really committed [after] all the stuff that went on the last couple of days,'' said Nashville coach Barry Trotz.

"We played hard for 60 minutes and finally showed some [guts]," added winger Martin Erat, who was dynamite on this night.

Pekka Rinne was back in fine form. Shea Weber and Ryan Suter looked Norris-like. The top line of Mike Fisher, Erat and Sergei Kostitsyn played like a top line. And the Predators played a smart, defensive game, protecting the puck, frustrating the Coyotes most of the night and not allowing the visitors too many Grade A chances.

In other words, the Predators rediscovered their true selves after looking out of sorts in the opening two losses in Phoenix.

"We stepped up and played Predator hockey, finally, in this series,'' said Trotz.

And they did so without two of their top offensive threats. If you wondered how the Predators truly felt about seeing Radulov and Kostitsyn benched for their ill-advised, curfew-breaking trip to a Scottsdale establishment Saturday night, then you got the answer loud and clear Wednesday night with big-time, bounce-back performance.

"Sometimes these things happen and you've got to rally around each other as a group,'' said Fisher, who made it 2-0 9:16 into the first period. "I think we all had the feeling that we would. There was no doubt about it in our minds, and then we went out and proved it. We're going to keep going and that's going to be a turning point for us.''

Make no mistake about it, there was a galvanizing effect to this little soap opera. GM David Poile and Trotz took an important stand, putting the team first as they always have, and the players lined up right behind them in unison.

"I think, in the big picture, when you make decisions as I said what I felt were for the right reasons, the group will respond,'' said Trotz. "... The guys respond because everybody wanted to be part of it. The group was committed to the effort. I will never apologize for doing what we felt was right. I think in life a lot of people did the right thing and have to pay a price for it. But when you do it right, you never have to apologize.''

For a franchise that has never before had a more legitimate shot at the Cup, it doesn't get any bigger than responding the way the Predators did Wednesday night.

"It was a good chance for us to step up in here and show our character," said Weber. "We have to keep building off that win.''

The Coyotes were coming off their top performance of the playoffs Sunday night in Game 2, a night when they took a noticeable step in their evolution as a playoff contender. They looked like they belonged and weren't just relying on Mike Smith to steal them wins.

They lost Wednesday night but still played a solid road game. They had some good pushback in the first half of the second period and in the second half of the third period.

"I thought there was some compete in our game,'' said Coyotes coach Dave Tippett. "There's some areas we can make some adjustments and do a better job in. ... Like every game, you have to reset, adjust a couple of things; we'll come back and look to try and get a split.''

They certainly didn't get the same kind of offensive looks they enjoyed in Game 2. That's because this time around, the Coyotes were allowed to stand around in front of the Predators' net without paying a physical price. Nashville's defense corps did a much better job boxing out and making it difficult to penetrate the slot and blue paint.

Mind you, during a Coyotes 5-on-3 power play late in the third period, Rinne certainly rode to the rescue with a series of spectacular saves, stoning Radim Vrbata, in particular, from in close -- twice.

It was a bit of redemption for Rinne after two so-so outings in the desert.

"After two games like that, you put a lot of pressure on yourself,'' said Rinne, who stopped all 32 shots Wednesday night. "For sure it feels good to win this one and play a solid game. It makes this series totally different now.''

Does it ever.