Here's the question facing Nashville coach Barry Trotz: Should he bring back forwards Alexander Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn following one-game suspensions.
Whether it was addition by subtraction or desperation, the Predators played with much more discipline without Radulov and Kostitsyn. They beat Phoenix 2-0 on Wednesday night to cut the Coyotes' lead to 2-1 in the Western Conference semifinal.
Radulov and Kostitsyn were suspended for an apparent curfew violation before Game 2 in Phoenix, and general manager David Poile has said the decision on when they return to the lineup is up to Trotz. Game 4 is Friday night, and Nashville can even this series and turn it into a best of three.
"I know it is going to be very tough if I do anything," Trotz said Thursday after practice. "I thought everyone was pretty committed. So I can't give a definite decision right now because I don't have that. The guys that were in got the job done, and they played very hard. It would be very difficult for me to give you an exact lineup for tomorrow."
Matt Halischuk and Jordin Tootoo played with Radulov and Kostitsyn out. Tootoo had played only once this post-season because Trotz was unhappy with his play late in the season. Tootoo's hits helped set the tone for his teammates.
"He had good focus last night," Trotz said. "He had good energy. He had good discipline and he was a factor in the game, in terms of being hard to play against. That is our identity. We have to be hard to play against."
The Predators let that slip in Phoenix, which led to them losing the first two games. They became what Trotz called a "turnover machine," allowing Phoenix to outplay them at their own game of grit and defence. On Wednesday night, the Predators got back to that style.
With his teammates playing better in front of him, Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne returned to his usual stingy form after giving up nine goals in the first two games in Phoenix. The 6-foot-5 Finn made 32 saves in notching his first playoff shutout in 26th game, the franchise's first since Tomas Vokoun shut out Detroit in Game 4 in 2004. Rinne was at his best killing 41 seconds of a 5-on-3 late in the game.
"We played desperate hockey and showed a lot of character when we faced maybe some adversity," Rinne said. "That was nice to see."
Nashville, 3-1 at home this post-season, killed all four penalties. The Coyotes are just 1 of 9 with the man advantage in this series but remain confident after their first road loss of these playoffs. Coach Dave Tippett said Thursday their defencemen didn't help goalie Mike Smith on the two quick goals in the first period.
"Now we've got to look for a split," Tippett said. "If we can get that win, you're going home with a chance to close out the series."
The Predators also got production from its top line. Mike Fisher, Martin Erat and Sergei Kostitsyn spent the first series working hard to shut down the likes of Pavel Datsyuk and didn't produce much offence. But the line came through Wednesday night.
Fisher scored his first goal in this post-season at 9:16 of the first period. He has more post-season points in his career (39) than anyone on this team and has points in consecutive games for the second time this post-season. Erat assisted on Fisher's goal, giving him a franchise-high 15 in the playoffs overall. Kostitsyn had the primary assist on Fisher's goal, his first point since the winning goal in Game 3 of the opening series with Detroit.
"The game is going to dictate how you play," Trotz said. "If there is no time and space, you can't dangle. You have to play a chip-and-chase or chip-and-support type of game. I love the fact that guys can dangle and stick handle, but when you're stick handling and turning puck over, that's just not effective."
Trotz credited Radulov and Kostitsyn for cheering their teammates. The coach says he expects them to support any decision he makes to try to win the series, even if they do not like it. Trotz says he has no problem playing Radulov or Kostitsyn, insisting it's not a package decision.
Radulov said he all he can do is work hard in practice. But he said it was nice to watch his teammates and is glad the team got back into the series. He will not ask Trotz to put him back in the lineup.
"I don't think it's right to go and ask,'" Radulov said after practice. "Guys played well yesterday. I want to play, but it's not like I go and ask for it. Whatever happens tomorrow, happens. We just have to make sure we're ready for the game.