Alex Nedeljkovic turned aside all 32 shots he faced to post his first career postseason shutout, helped along by a two-goal performance by Sebastian Aho and a perfect seven for seven penalty kill.
Head coach Rod Brind’Amour along with Aho, Brady Skjei and Nedeljkovic spoke with the media via Zoom following the game. Here’s what they had to say.
On the volume of penalties and stoppages: It wasn’t pretty, right? The first two periods were kind of no flow and it just wasn’t a very good game I felt. We just couldn’t get any traction. We had some guys who couldn’t get on the ice because they don’t kill penalties. It was just a very strange kind of flow to the game.
On his penalty killers: You can’t say enough about those guys. All the penalty killers, the goaltending, Pesce and Skjei in particular. They obviously had to step up today and they did in a huge way. Just incredible performances really by those guys.
On the most impressive part of Nedeljkovic’s performance: He’s pretty calm in there. Obviously made some big saves at critical times. All the penalties we took. The stress level goes way up, but he looked pretty calm in there. He was huge. I mentioned those other guys too that came up big. I thought Sebastian had a great game. Very competitive. Played hard obviously, but we had some big time performances tonight.
On the familiarity between the two teams adding to the intensity: I’m sure it does. This first round is always this way. Everyone’s so excited to finally be playing really meaningful games. As it goes on, I find it gets less and less if you can make it out of these rounds because the energy just gets sapped out of you a little bit. Right now though, everyone is just on full adrenaline and that’s kind of how these games go.
On deciding starting goaltenders going off of either mental or physical fatigue: That’s a good question. That’s kind of how we’ve looked at it all year. That’s what we’ve kind of rotated or made sure we didn’t overwork a guy because it’s both. I’d hope that because we did that all year, it gives us a little more flexibility or freedom that if we had the opportunity to roll another guy that we could because he didn’t get overworked during the regular season. But we always just take it one game at a time.
On Nedeljkovic having shades of Cam Ward: When Cam came in, we didn’t feel like he was a rookie in [the locker room]. I don’t think the guys think Ned is a rookie in there. You guys make a way bigger deal out of it. I get it. It’s an exciting story to talk about, but he’s been around a long time and he’s been here all year. Guys have a lot of faith in him or else he wouldn’t be in there.
On balancing the intensity levels: We don’t want to get involved because it opens up whether you think things are penalties or not. Embellishment or not. It opens up to have that be called when you have to take a cheap shot. You just have to. We got what we were given back, but those were what was being called. You just can’t get involved in that stuff because it just doesn’t help.
On keeping the guys who don’t kill penalties engaged: You just try to get them out when you can. That’s why my matchups, I didn’t stick with them because I was just trying to get guys into a rhythm and more importantly just get them on the ice. It’s just part of it. I think the guys that didn’t get to play much in the first couple periods got it going in the third and did a nice job for us.
On the grind of the game: It was definitely a grind game. Lots of penalties, lots of 4-on-4s, power plays. Not all the guys can get in a rhythm. But great job from our guys, still being ready when it was their turn to go onto the ice, just a solid team effort and obviously Ned was solid in the pipes.
On generating offense while on the PK: You just...I don’t know. I think it’s more, you try to not let them score a goal, right? The way I like to play PK is puck pressure, and sometimes there’s chances, and it doesn’t matter – if it’s PP, PK, 5 on 5, if there’s a breakaway chance I’m going for it. It happens – it’s not something I’m thinking about when I’m out there that I’ve got to get the breakaway on the PK. It’s from the puck pressure, and sometimes you get a little lucky bounce.
On Nedeljkovic performing as a rookie: You can tell he has confidence between the pipes. Obviously, we talked about PK, and the defensive game overall, it starts with the hot goalie. You’ve got the confidence to put the pressure on their players, that we know if they make a play Ned will bail us out. It’s huge when you have a hot goalie, and it’s just fun to watch him play right now.
On keeping momentum on the road: Both these games have been high intensity, lots of battles, grind games. I don’t expect anything less in Nashville.
On Erik Haula getting under the Canes’ skin: I think that’s just playoff hockey. Those things happen. I think that’s it.
On the demands of the game with Slavin out: I figured with Slavin being out I would go up a little bit in ice time. Obviously, the PKs were a big part of that reason. That was a solid game. Once you get in the flow of the game, you’re not even thinking about ice time. You’re just kind of playing. That was kind of my thought process going through it, and I thought we did a really good job.
On momentum coming off the penalty kill: I think all the guys on the PK did a great job. The number one star is probably Ned. He was a stud tonight. To have a good PK you need your goaltender playing well, and he was phenomenal tonight. Lot of credit to him, and the other guys that killed off those penalties tonight.
On what impresses about Nedeljkovic: I think his confidence probably sticks out the most for me. He’s not cocky or arrogant, he just carries himself with that confidence you need to be a goalie. You can just tell the way he plays the puck, with that confidence and poise, it helps us D out a lot, and it helps our team out a ton. He’s playing great right now, and he’ll definitely keep that going.
On the series being more feisty than expected: I don’t know. I think it’s playoff hockey. I think every series you play in is physical, it’s feisty. Whenever you play a team four to seven times in a row, it’s going to get chippy. I thought we’ve done a good job of answering the bell with the chippiness and the physical play, and we just have to keep that going.
On his confidence in game 2: It’s just another game. Obviously there’s more stakes to it now, higher stakes, however you want to say it. But it’s just another game, and that’s how you have to look at it. It doesn’t matter what the score is. If you give up ten, if you give up none, if you give up whatever, one, it doesn’t matter. Right now it’s just about getting the win. Obviously everybody wants to do well, but they’re not always going to be pretty. Tonight there were a lot of sacrifices around the board there. Guys were blocking shots, guys were diving to make plays, get pucks out. It wasn’t our best, but it was a really good effort, really gutsy effort.
On managing his composure in a game with seven PKs: It seemed like more than seven tonight. But like I said before, it’s just another game. I really can’t answer it any other way. That’s how I look at it, and that’s how I try to go about it every day. It’s just a game. Even in practice, you’re having fun. Obviously you can be a little more loose in practice. You’re going to give up goals in practice, and obviously they don’t count. But when you get out here you try to play as loose as you can, and at the same time be as composed and under control, and have the right frame of mind, and hopefully good things happen.
On killing penalties as a goalie and the physical and mental toll: For me, it’s mostly mental. Even if it’s like the other night, [where] they only had about 20-some shots, so it wasn’t the most physically taxing game. Tonight, obviously, they were in our end a little bit more, so it was a little more physically demanding. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter if they have ten shots, 20, 50 shots, the biggest thing I feel is mentally. Really, that’s where you have to be the most sharp. Your body remembers how to make a save, your glove just knows where to go and things like that. But your mind has to be what’s clear and working and processing things at a fast pace. You just can’t really think about it. You just have to go out and do it. And that’s tough. Nobody can do it for 60 straight minutes, not think about it and just do it. It’s tough, and it takes a lot of work. The less I think, the easier the game gets.
On being in a 1-0 game with mayhem everywhere: That’s the stuff that you think about growing up. Even in practices, you try to play out certain scenarios. Maybe if in your mind, a one-goal game, few minutes left, you’ve got to make a save. That’s fun. Crowd’s on the edge of their seat the whole time. Those blowouts – 5-0, 5-1, whatever it is – they’re fun, obviously. They’re a little more easygoing. There’s nothing like a close game, a tense game, the whole time from the first puck drop to the final buzzer. Everybody was on the edge of their seat. The next shot, you never know what could happen. It could be a hit, it could be a broken stick, just whatever, could change the tide of the game. That’s the beauty of the game.
On the journey this season from being on waivers to get to this point: I tried not to look too far ahead at that point. I was just trying to stay focused in the moment with everything going on. You always dream about things like this, and you always, as a kid growing up, think about playing in the playoffs and playing for a Stanley Cup. We have a long way to go, don’t get me wrong, a long way to go before that, but just to play playoff hockey, especially with how bad things have been around the world the last year and a half, it’s a privilege to do what we get to do, and it’s just exciting.
On familiarity breeding comfortability against a known opponent: It’s tough to get comfortable. If you get comfortable, maybe you get a little complacent and you let off the gas a little bit. You can’t do that, especially in the playoffs, and especially against this team. They’re always running, they’re going, they’re trying to get above you in the neutral zone, trying to get pucks behind us and create those odd man rushes and let their skill take over. They work hard too. That fourth line there just works and works and works, and they always seem to find a way to create something. You have to be sharp. You can’t take a breath.
On proving the decision makers right with keeping three goalies: I try not to think too big picture like that. I try to just take it a day at a time, one game at a time. I talked to Paul yesterday, he let me know that I was going to play today, but my focus was never “alright, I’ve got to go out and show whoever, the higher ups, that they made the right decision”. It goes back to thinking too much. If I’m thinking about somebody else and not about the things I can control, then I’m not doing myself any favors. The only things I can control are what goes on on the ice. If I’m in net, that’s just playing my game, doing my thing, and giving us a good chance to win. If I’m on the bench or in the stands, then I’m going to be the biggest cheerleader, biggest support, that the guys need. Whatever it takes now. It doesn’t matter if I play every game, or if these are the only two games I play, it doesn’t matter. We’re here to win, and that’s what matters.