OMIYA, Saitama Pref. — Maybe it was the jet lag. Maybe it was the adjustment to new head coach Ivan Hlinka’s system. Whatever the reason, it took the Pittsburgh Penguins a game and two-thirds to break out of their Japan doldrums and rally for a 3-1 win over the Nashville Predators on Sunday at Saitama Super Arena.
With the victory, the Penguins earned a split in the two-game series that opened the season for both National Hockey League teams.
After being frustrated by Nashville’s tenacious checking in a 3-1 loss Saturday and falling behind early in Sunday’s contest, the Penguins looked to be headed for the long trip home with an 0-2 record. Then three Penguin Czech-mates turned the game around.
Robert Lang scored on the power play at 6:44 of the third period to tie the game 1-1 and set up fellow-Czech Martin Straka for the winner at 16:16. Yet another Czech, Jan Hrdina added an empty-net goal with 40 seconds remaining to put the game out of reach.
“We got a good wakeup call yesterday,” said Penguins superstar right winger and captain Jaromir Jagr, one of 10 Czechs on a team headed by Czech coach Ivan Hlinka.
“It seemed yesterday that we didn’t care. You know, we think because it’s Nashville we don’t even have to try and we’re going to win. But it doesn’t work like that in the NHL — now any team can beat any team,” added Jagr, who helped Pittsburgh’s cause with two assists.
After a goal and an assist in Saturday’s opener, Scott Walker continued his strong play in Japan and helped the Predators draw first blood. The gritty winger, who scored the first-ever regular-season NHL goal outside North America three years ago as a Vancouver Canuck, carried the puck over the Pittsburgh blue line and dropped a pass back to David Legwand, who one-timed a slapshot. While Legwand didn’t get all of the puck, it managed to squeak through Jean-Sebastien Aubin’s pads, giving the Predators a 1-0 lead at 5:08 of the first period.
Like Saturday’s opener, the referees continued the league-mandated crackdown on obstruction and stick infractions, calling a total of 15 minor penalties. Both teams struggled on the power play, especially the Predators, who squandered two 5-on-3 opportunities.
Pittsburgh’s free-flowing European-style offense was frustrated most of the game, but the Penguins finally started generating some scoring chances in the latter half of the second period. At the midway point, Matthew Barnaby took a pass at center and broke in alone but was foiled by the glove of Tomas Vokoun. Minutes later, Vokoun got out his left pad to block a Kip Miller drive, then made a sprawling save on Jagr in close.
The Pens carried the momentum over into the third period, outshooting the Predators 19-5 for a 41-22 edge overall.
Alexei Kovalev was the set-up man for Lang’s tying goal with the man advantage. Taking the puck at the blue line, the smooth-skating Russian carried down the right side, his off wing. With Vokoun ex
pecting a shot, Kovalev slid a perfect pass across to Lang for an easy tap-in into a gaping net.
Lang’s pass to Straka for the game-clincher was a thing of beauty. The center had the puck behind the net and appeared set to carry it for a wraparound attempt, pulling Vokoun off his right post. Instead, Lang put a backhand feed in front to Straka, who redirected the puck between the goalie and the post.
Trying for the equalizer, coach Barry Trotz pulled Vokoun with a minute left in the third, but Hrdina’s goal ensured the Penguins would be returning to the States with two points.
Lang’s offensive heroics earned him first-star honors, followed by Kovalev and Vokoun, who prevented what could have been a Pittsburgh blowout.
Predators center Cliff Ronning, the first star on Saturday, lamented his team’s failure to convert on the power play. “We had a lot of shots on the power play and missed the net,” he noted. “If we hit the net it’s in. That’s something we have to work on in practice.”
With 13,426 fans attending Sunday’s game, the two-day total of 27,275 set a record for Japan season openers, following two-game sets in 1997 and ’98 at the 10,000-seat Yoyogi Arena in Tokyo.
After the game, NHL executive vice president Bill Daly wouldn’t confirm or deny that NHL games will be back in Japan next year.
“We’re committed to bringing as many games as possible abroad, including Japan and Europe,” said Daly. “We haven’t made any plans for next year yet. We have certain things that are on the drawing table, but we haven’t decided anything yet.”