NASHVILLE – Nashville Predators rookie forward Austin Watson has endured a wild ride during the past few weeks, one that culminated in his first NHL goal on Tuesday in his team's 4-3 win over the Calgary Flames at Bridgestone Arena.
The goal helped Nashville to end an eight-game winless streak that cost them a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Watson, the Predators' first-round pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, made his NHL debut on April and played five games before returning to Milwaukee of the American Hockey League on April 16. He proceeded to play three games in three days with the Admirals in Milwaukee, Chicago and then Peoria before he was recalled on Tuesday, marking his fourth game in five days.
If the 21-year-old is feeling the effects, it's not showing. He called scoring the goal "better than a dream."
"A little bit of adrenaline rush right now," Watson said. "We're happy with the win, obviously. For myself personally, it's an exciting moment."
The 6-foot-4, 193-pound Watson scored by finishing off a 3-on-2 with a wrist shot low to Calgary goalie Miikka Kiprusoff's blocker side at 3:17 of the third period. The goal came in Watson's sixth NHL game.
The Predators have been forced to go with a youth movement because of a rash of injuries to their top forwards. A Michigan native, Watson will play his first game at Joe Louis Arena on Thursday against the team he grew up rooting for, the Detroit Red Wings. Nashville coach Barry Trotz said he thought the goal could give Watson, a prolific scorer in the Ontario Hockey League, some confidence.
"I think he's enjoying the experience," said Trotz, who referenced two other rookies, Kevin Henderson and Daniel Bang, who have gone up and down from Nashville to Milwaukee along with Watson. "I think all the guys. We've had Kevin Henderson score his first goal [in his NHL debut last Friday] and he's going back and forth. Daniel Bang is doing the same thing and Austin Watson. The goal for Austin, I think, will really help him.
"Kevin and Daniel are a little older and they have a little more of that veteran poise, if you will. I think getting a goal for Austin, who's still a real young guy who's 21, will hopefully give him some confidence going forward."
Another Nashville rookie also earned his first NHL point earlier in the game. Rookie Filip Forsberg, the 11th player taken in the 2012 draft, earned an assist in his fourth game. He was acquired from the Washington Capitals on April 3. Forsberg said he was not aware he earned a point until he heard the goal announced.
Matt Halischuk scored Nashville's fourth goal, the eventual game-winner, at 4:40 of the third. He has three goals in his last two games after scoring two in his first 33.
Calgary pulled to within one goal at 15:10 on its second shot of the period. Roman Cervenka scored his second goal of the game, deflecting Chris Butler's shot out of midair and into the net.
Calgary had won six of eight entering the game. The Flames suited up numerous young players recently called up from Abbotsford of the American Hockey League and sat healthy veterans such as Mike Cammalleri, Lee Stempniak, Matt Stajan and Cory Sarich. Calgary was outshot 32-18 and had six shots in the second period and three in the third.
"There's a lot of new guys playing," said Kiprusoff, who made 28 saves. "The young guys they work real hard but sometimes it's open up a little bit. You know, it's not fun to lose but it's good to see our young guys. They played well again and good to see them getting chances to play."
The Flames, who had won three in a row, satisfied coach Bob Hartley with their effort, if not the results.
"We had a couple of mistakes defensively and they beat us out of the corner on two or three goals, so obviously that leaves a mark," he said. "Apart from this, I think we worked hard. I would've liked us to put more pucks at the net than we did."
"I felt that we passed on a shots and opportunities that we could have put pucks on the net rather than trying a pass in the high slot, and they took advantage of this to create outnumbered situations on us. I can't fault the effort. I think the effort was there, but better communication and couple of missed assignments cost us a few goals."
Nashville had gone 0-7-1 entering the game -- the Predators' last victory was a 3-1 home win against the Colorado Avalanche on April 2. The win was just the second of the month for the Predators, whose 1-8-3 slide knocked them out of the playoff race. Previously, they had qualified for the postseason in seven of the past eight seasons.
Nashville tied the game at 2-2, as Bang earned a power play when Calgary's Mark Cundari hooked him following a breakaway attempt that Bang shot wide. Shea Weber picked up his second primary assist of the game, this time with a soft shot that Nick Spaling deflected between his legs at 18:31 of the second period. Spaling has nine goals in 45 games, one off his career high, which he set last season in 77 games.
Cervenka scored a breakaway goal at 7:06 of the second period to put Calgary on top 2-1 on the Flames' first shot of the period. Forward Sven Baertschi pitchforked the puck from along the left boards below the faceoff dot and hit Cervenka in stride in the neutral zone. Cervenka had plenty of time to line up his shot and beat Pekka Rinne [15 saves] high to the blocker side.
With 5:21 left in the first period, Nashville evened the score on David Legwand's team-leading 12th goal and the 200th of his career. Weber let loose one of his trademark bombs from the right point and the rebound was too much for Kiprusoff to control. Legwand put it in from the doorstep.
T.J. Brodie put Calgary on top 1-0 in a 4-on-4 situation at 5:59 of the first period. With Rich Clune and Akim Aliu in the penalty box for coincidental roughing minors, Brodie faked his way around Nashville center Chris Mueller and deposited a quick wrist shot from the right circle.
The Predators went through a lot of losing in recent weeks, which made the events in their final home game of the season feel somewhat odd.
"I was sort of chuckling when I came in here," Trotz said. "We won the game. We weren't quite sure what to do. It was a new feeling. Guys have been working hard and not getting rewarded. Tonight they get rewarded."