YONO, Saitama Pref. — The smallest man on the ice had perhaps the biggest impact in the game Saturday afternoon as Cliff Ronning and his Nashville Predators skated to a 3-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins at Saitama Super Arena.
The game marked the third time in the last four years that the National Hockey League has sent two teams to Japan to open their regular-season schedules. The clubs will square off again Sunday afternoon in Saitama before heading back to North America on Monday.
Ronning, a 14-year NHL veteran generously listed at 173 cm and 77 kg in the official program, scored the opening goal just over four minutes into the game when he blasted a slap shot that caromed in off the left post past Penguins goaltender Jean-Sebastien Aubin.
The pesky Ronning, who was named the game’s first star, presented problems for Pittsburgh all afternoon, ringing a 30-foot slap shot off the post midway through the third period with Aubin clearly beaten.
The game was a classic battle between Nashville’s hard-working group of predominantly North American skaters and Pittsburgh’s lineup of smooth-skating Europeans — the Predators have 17 players from the United States and Canada listed on their roster, compared to just nine for the Penguins — and, for a change, the work in the trenches paid off as substance won out over style.
Nashville winger Scott Walker, who scored the historic first official NHL goal outside of North America in 1997 when he was in Tokyo with the Vancouver Canucks, got on the scoresheet again Saturday, burying an empty-netter in the last minute to ice the game for the Predators. Walker also assisted on Vitali Yachmenev’s second-period power-play goal that put Nashville up 2-0.
“I enjoy myself here and the people are really good to us,” Walker said after the game. “Today, Yuji Nakajimaya (of Japan’s Kokudo club, who attended training camp with the Predators) said I’d better score, because I told him after my first time here that I might come over and play with him in Japan when my NHL career’s over.”
Penalties played a role in the game, but it wasn’t the traditionally more undisciplined North Americans who were beating a path to the penalty box. The Penguins took five minors in the second period alone — at one point being forced to kill off a two-man disadvantage for nearly the full two minutes — making it difficult for superstar Jaromir Jagr and his flashy Czech teammates to get much going offensively.
Jagr did show flashes of brilliance at times, setting up Pittsburgh’s lone score near the end of the second period. With Nashville’s Rob Valicevic in the box serving two minutes for slashing, Jagr hit Alexei Kovalev with a pass in the slot. Kovalev’s initial shot was stopped by goalie Mike Dunham and Predators captain Tom Fitzgerald appeared to inadvertently kick the puck into his own net. Jan Hrdina was credited with the goal that made the score 2-1.
But that was as close as the Pens would get. Both goaltenders were solid and made several big saves throughout the game. Aubin stopped 31 of the 33 shots he faced, while Dunham made 25 saves in the Nashville net.
Pittsburgh coach Ivan Hlinka, who led the Czech Republic to a gold medal at the Nagano Winter Olympics in 1998, was making his debut as a head coach in the NHL.
“I don’t feel that good right now, but that’s hockey,” Hlinka told reporters after the game. “One team has to win the game and Nashville was the better team today.
“We’ve got another game in a few hours and hopefully I’ll feel better after that one,” Hlinka added with a smile.
An enthusiastic crowd of nearly 14,000 was on hand to cheer on the teams.
“The Japanese fans were great,” Walker said after the game. “They were yelling like crazy and made it real exciting for us. It made us feel right at home.”
Longtime Tokyo resident and hockey fan Joji Hiratsuka agreed. “The crowd here was more involved than a typical crowd back home at an Oilers game,” said the 38-year-old banker from Edmonton.
Local sports fan Noriko Kumagae was thrilled with her first dose of NHL hockey and was impressed with the speed of the play, calling the action “very exciting and very fast.”