The Nashville Predators looked to continue their hot play as they trekked to the United Center to do battle with the Chicago Blackhawks in an important Central Division tilt. The Predators came into the contest with 62 points, trailing the Blackhawks, who have 64 points.
The Predators were playing their second game in two nights, having defeated the Columbus Blue Jackets 4-1 on Monday. The Blackhawks last game was Saturday in Nashville, where the Predators claimed a 5-2 victory.
The Blackhawks were without their Captain, Jonathan Toews, who was placed on IR with a wrist injury. The Predators were without Jerred Smithson and Francis Buillon, both out with upper body injuries.
The Predators had Pekka Rinne in net, while the Blackhawks went with Corey Crawford.
Both teams opened the game moving up and down the ice and had some chances that both goaltenders turned aside. The Predators were cycling the puck well and were creating some scoring opportunities, and it was a solid start in enemy territory.
The Predators efforts were rewarded at 11:39 of the first period as Matt Halischuk jumped on a loose puck in the slot. He got the puck to Craig Smith, and he whipped a shot from the face off circle that eluded Crawford with Brandon Yip screening in front to give the Predators a 1-0 lead. This was the rookie Smith's 11th goal of the season.
The Predators were immediately besieged by the Blackhawks, as they trapped the Predators forwards deep in their zone. The Predators did not yield to the pressure from the Hawks, and were finally able to get the puck out of the zone.
Energized by that defensive stand, the Predators got the puck deep in the Chicago end. Patric Hornqvist dug the puck out of the corner and kicked it to Mike Fisher, who was cruising alone in the slot. His quick wrist shot beat Crawford far post to give the Predators a 2-0 lead at 17:34 of the first period.
The first period ended with the Predators holding a 2-0 lead and both teams recording 10 shots on goal.
Now the Predators faced their persistent demon, a second period that often saw them disappear and allow opponent s to claw their way back into a game. For the Predators, it was going to be critical to have a strong second period and not let Chicago seize back the momentum.
The Predators came out strong in the second period. They used their aggressive forecheck to control the Blackhawks in the neutral zone and prevent their speedy and dangerous breakouts. Their cycle game controlled the puck in the offensive zone and created some good chances. The defense did a good job of clearing the net in front of Rinne, giving him a good look at any shots the Hawks mustered on the net.
The Blackhawks got a good scoring chance as Patrick Kane had a breakaway. Roman Josi hustled back and forced him to alter his shot wide of the net.
Newcomer Brandon Yip showed that he wanted to stick in the line up as he had a good scrap with Steve Montador.
The second period ended scoreless, but it was a strong period for the Predators. Their defense was solid and they controlled the puck for much of the period. The Predators limited the Hawks to 7 shots on goal while logging 10 on the the Chicago net.
The third period was more of the same, as both teams traded chances. The Predators made a mistake that cost them, however, as Mike Fisher went to the box for delay of game. On the ensuing power play, Dave Bolland scored at 7:20 of the third period to make it 2-1 Predators.
For Predator fans, the pucker factor was off the chart.
The Predators took another penalty at 8:31 of the period as Marty Erat was called for a 2 minute penalty for high sticking. The Predators had survived the second period, but the Blackhawks were pushing now, and it was up to the Predators to survive the pressure.
The Predators were able to kill the penalty, but the Hawks were still pressing. It was up to the Predators to respond.
The Predators kept tempting fate as Shea Weber went to the box for elbowing at 15:02. Late in the game, this was not a penalty that just made the task more difficult for the Predators. Once again, the Predators penalty killers were going to have to come up big.
Once again, the PK unit responded to the challenge and did their job, holding the Hawks without a shot. This was huge effort by the Predators.
The Predators had an opportunity to ice the game as Sergei Kostitsyn and Marty Erat broke in 2 on 1, but Erat's shot hit the crossbar and bounced out.
With 1:51 to go in the game, the Predators caught a break as Chicago was called for too many men on the ice, and the Predators went to the man advantage.
The Predators iced the game with 12 seconds as Colin Wilson buried an empty netter on the power play to make it 3-1. The Predators record against the Blackhawks is now 2-0-1, and against Central Division opponents, the Predators are 11-2-2.
Nashville had 26 shots on goal to 25 for Chicago, but for the Predators, the third period was a matter of tenacity and survival. They showed no quit and refused to fold in the face of the unrelenting pressure from a talented Blackhawks squad. This win was character personified.
For Pekka Rinne, this was his 9th consecutive win, a franchise record.
The Predators are now tied with the Blackhawks with 64 points. The win was the Predators 9th in their last 11 games and allowed them to close the gap on their competitors in the Central Division. The Predators now sit one point out of 4th place behind St. Louis.
This was a solid win, and January has been an exceptional month for the Predators. This win allows the Predators to go into the All Star break feeling good and with momentum. It will be important for the team to pick this momentum right back up after the All Star break.
This team has been growing before our eyes, and the compete level has been getting better in the second half of the season. Young players are quickly growing into prominent roles, and are performing exceptionally well. This is a team that can surprise not only in the regular season but in the playoffs
Keep it rolling after the All Star break, boys.
My three stars:
1. Pekka Rinne
2. Mike Fisher
3. Patric Hornqvist