The Nashville Predators won the first road game in their playoff history, and took home-ice advantage away from the heavily-favored Chicago Blackhawks with a 4-1 win at the United Center tonight. J.P. Dumont scored twice, Pekka Rinne made 25 saves, and both Jerred Smithson and Martin Erat added empty-net goals in the final minute to lead Nashville to a huge win.
Check the video widget on the right-hand sidebar for highlights, and follow after the jump for recap & reaction...
The Preds penalty killers got to work early, after Kevin Klein let Troy Brouwer get wide on him and forced Klein to hook him down to the ice. Nashville survived that power play, and once back at even strength they managed to push things back into the Chicago end where Ryan Suter and Shea Weber were able to fire a few pucks toward the net.
The Blackhawks seemed eager to get the first score, as they often had a lone winger up-ice looking for the long pass. While they carried much of the first-period play, getting roughly a 2-to-1 advantage in Total Shots, the Preds were able to hold on. The best chance came when Patrick Sharp got loose on a breakaway and attempted a deke to the backhand, but Pekka Rinne turned it aside.
Shortly after the Sharp opportunity, Marian Hossa leveled Patric Hornqvist along the boards for the biggest hit of the first period. To their credit, the Preds David Legwand showed some real offensive aggressiveness, firing shots on net and carrying the puck towards the slot whenever possible. Perhaps that was due in part to having J.P. Dumont on his line for a few shifts, an attempt to load up a little more punch. Rather than roll four lines, Barry Trotz mostly kept it to a rotation of Arnott-Goc-Legwand, with Spaling's line showing up only occasionally.
The second period featured more special teams, as the Preds got a power play after Troy Brouwer was called for goalie interference, and just before those two minutes had expired, Cody Franson was whistled for slashing - it was a completely mythical call, as Kris Versteeg broke his stick slashing Franson's, but the ref saw one guy with a break and assumed Franson was the guilty party. The Blackhawks got some great chances on the ensuing power play, including a shot off the post by Sharp.
While the Preds survived that kill, it was less than a minute later when Chicago came in on a 3-on-2, fired the shot on net (remember those keys to the game?) and Kane swept home the rebound to give them the 1-0 lead.
By the end of two, it looked like the ice had been tilted - Total Shots were 51-32 in Chicago's favor, and a similar flow in the 3rd would pretty much doom the Preds. But they got the tying goal early in the third on an absolute laugher of a goal. J.P. Dumont pulled up along the right-side boards and just flipped a backhander towards the net, where it bounced through Niemi and tied the game at one. Moments later, Nashville got a power play opportunity, but couldn't take advantage and assume the lead.
At the time, however, a neutral observer (ESPN's Pierre LeBrun) made the following note on Twitter:
"Could the Preds have scripted this any better? 1-1 in third, defensive game, crowd fairly moderate. Great road game so far"
Just moments later, the Preds put together their best extended sequence of the game. Steve Sullivan had a tremendous shift, keeping the puck on his stick and away from multiple Chicago defenders as he tried to set a teammate up for a shot. Nashville kept the pressure on while they were able to change lines, and Legwand eventually threw a relatively harmless shot on net, but Niemi left a rebound loose at the top of the crease, which Dumont was able to chip in for his second goal of the game, and a 2-1 Nashville lead, with 9:23 left.
From there it was a matter of stacking the blueline and chipping pucks back into the neutral zone, riding the same formula which has led to so many one-goal victories this season. Both Jerred Smithson and Martin Erat were able to score empty-netters in the final minute, though, pushing the final margin to 4-1. This doesn't go down in the books as a one-goal game, but that's basically what it was.
What amazed most, however, was just how the Preds were indeed able to "tip the ice" in the third period. After getting outshot 22-13 through two periods, they turned the tide with a 13-4 advantage in the final 20 minutes.
The big question now is, can they take Game Two on Sunday, and return to Nashville with a 2-0 lead in the series?
It was interesting to see Nick Spaling inserted into the lineup at Dustin Boyd's expense. He ended up getting the least ice time among the forwards (6:33), but seemed to acquit himself well.
Cody Franson also get very little ice time (5:58), and earned an assist on the first goal of the game. The penalty he took was not at all his fault, and I thought he played very well. He stepped up at the blueline to break up a couple Chicago rushes, and put one shot on goal.
David Legwand played probably the best game I've seen from him since perhaps the night of the Legwand Hat Trick. He skated hard, used his size well, and drove the puck to the net at every opportunity.
The Preds showed an admirable focus on sticking with the play and not responding to the physical aggression the Hawks brought. Besides Hossa flattening Hornqvist in the first period, Colin Wilson got steamrolled in the 3rd. Neither, however, let those hits take them off their game.
About those 5 Keys I offered before the game? I'd give them about 2.5 out of 5 there. The aggressive forechecking was pretty rare, and instead of rolling four lines, Barry Trotz shortened his bench to three for practical purposes (so neither of those counts). Throwing pucks on net did prove to be the critical difference, and Pekka Rinne was outstanding. I'll give the guys half-marks for playing solid defensively in their own zone, as the Hawks did catch them unawares a few times. That's what they do, however, to just about everybody.
Will Chicago Turn Anti-Niemi?
Perhaps the best thing to come out of this game (besides the victory, obviously) is the nurturing of the seed of doubt about the Blackhawks' goaltending. While the Nashville skaters took over the third period, it was Niemi's groaner that he gave up on a 43-foot backhander that let the Preds back in the game.
I'm sure his teammates and coaches will all say the right thing and support their goalie, but at the same time, they're looking around the room at Cristobal Huet, and realizing that they don't have much of an alternative.