Nashville Predators forward Erik Haula knew exactly what defenseman Mattias Ekholm was thinking once he intercepted a Dallas Stars pass and furiously skated toward goaltender Anton Khudobin.
Ekholm skated by three Dallas players as he circled the net before rifling off a pass to Haula, who had centered himself right in front of Khudobin and slammed home the game-winning goal with just 1:28 left in overtime to hand Dallas its third straight loss.
“I saw (Ekholm) had good speed and he was going in there, and I had a feeling he was going to try the wraparound,” Haula said. “I was just trying to time myself and luckily it hit right on my tape and back of the net, so it was a good feeling.”
In the eight meetings this year between the Predators and Stars, Nashville has won five and needed overtime or a shootout to win each time. Saturday was no different.
The victory gives Nashville a three-point lead over Dallas for the final playoff spot in the Central Division with four games left for the Predators and five for the Stars. Nashville has the easier road to the playoffs, closing out the season with two games against the last-place Columbus Blue Jackets and two against the Carolina Hurricanes at home.
Dallas, on the other hand, plays one against the Florida Panthers, two against the Tampa Bay Lightning and two against the Chicago Blackhawks. The Stars are a combined 5-10-4 against those three teams this season.
"It's (a) big (two) points," said goaltender Juuse Saros, who had a 28-save shutout. "It was a really tight game, and we just stayed with it and eventually got it done. But it's a big [win], and we still got some business to do here. So it's a fun, tight race."
Saros has been a vital part of the Predators’ resurgence. The 26-year-old leads the NHL in wins (14) and save percentage (.949) and is tied for the third-best goals-against average (1.83) since returning from a lower-body injury on March 18, sparking Nashville’s torrid six-week run just to scratch its way back into the playoff discussion.
Two months ago, the Predators had a 2 percent chance of making the playoffs. Now, they have a 91 percent chance. Following a 16-6-1 run that produced 33 points — second-most in the NHL over that span — the Predators need just two more wins, coupled with two more losses for the Stars and they’re in the playoffs.
“Our job right now is that we accomplished the mission tonight, but we have a big week ahead of us,” Hynes said. “Starting (Sunday), we've got to make sure we're focusing on Columbus… So, like we've always said: Don't get too high on this one. Let's enjoy it, but let's make sure we're ready to go this week and take care of business."
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