By Jim Diamond
Goals, fights, a penalty kill, and saves, and that was just in the first period. From the opening faceoff, the Predators looked like a different team Thursday night, dominating the visiting Chicago Blackhawks for nearly the entirety of the first 20 minutes.
The game’s first 11 shots on goal all came off of Nashville sticks with the Blackhawks not testing Pekka Rinne until Jonathan Toews recorded Chicago’s first shot at 5:30.
All the talk of late has been about whether or not the Predators are a frustrated team. Despite not solving Darling during that early barrage, they kept shooting. It paid off at 6:54 when James Neal did, well, what James Neal does.
Neal accepted a long stretch pass from Shea Weber at the Chicago blue line. He got the puck to settle in the slot, danced around Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson to get into open space on the left, and then slipped a quick wrist shot between Scott Darling’s pads.
Neal, who had just one goal in his last 11 games, pumped his fist before celebrating with his teammates on the left half boards.
“Yeah, I think it was one of our best periods of the year,” Neal said. “I think every guy wanted to respond from our game in Chicago. It was a tough one for us, so coming back home having Chicago again was great for our team. I think we did a great job, every line, and the first shift was big and got us rolling.”
Neal added another goal late in the third. It was his third two-goal game of the season, but first since Oct. 20.
Craig Smith and Filip Forsberg scored goals 37 seconds apart later in the first. Smith’s goal snapped a seven-game goalless stretch.
Viktor Arvidsson carried the puck into the Chicago zone on the left side and lifted a backhand pass over the stick of Trevor van Riemsdyk to Smith in the slot. Smith corralled the bouncing puck and got enough of it to get it by Darling for his sixth of the season.
“We were ready to play fast,” Smith said. “We just wanted to hit holes and just regardless of what happened, just to move our feet and play fast.”
Forsberg’s goal came just 19 seconds into the only power play the Predators would have on the night.
As efficient as their power play was, Nashville’s penalty kill was equally effective in the game. The highly talented Blackhawks had three opportunities on the power plays in the game. In the six minutes of time with the man advantage, they managed just three shots on Rinne, none of which beat him.
Nashville had allowed nine power-play goals against in their last seven games.
“It’s great to see,” Rinne said. “It’s a confidence booster too when you kill a few penalties against a good team like that. We did a really good job. Guys sacrificed and we made good clears, all the right things.”
Chicago pushed back over the course of the final two periods, putting 29 shots on Rinne in the second and third. Only one got by him, a controversial Patrick Kane goal that Rinne thought should have been blown dead since he thought he had the puck covered. Peter Laviolette used his challenge, but the call on the ice stood after the review.