An uncharacteristic parade to the penalty box doomed the Nashville Predators tonight in Chicago, as they dropped a 2-0 decision to even their Western Conference Quarterfinal at 1-1, as the series heads to Nashville for Game 3 & 4 Tuesday and Thursday.
On the positive side, this is now a best-of-five series with three games at Bridgestone Arena. On the negative side, the Predators' poor discipline cost them a chance to get a stranglehold on the Blackhawks.
Follow after the jump for recap and reaction, and check out the video widget in the right sidebar for the video highlights...
Preds fans got a big shock just moments before the start, when Patric Hornqvist was scratched with an "upper body injury". That opened the door for Dustin Boyd to get back in the lineup, but it surely frustrated fans who had heard for a couple days that Hornqvist only missed the last 10 minutes of Game One due to an equipment problem.
Man, I hate the NHL's non-disclosure policy when it comes to injuries.
Joel Ward took Hornqvist's spot on the Sullivan-Goc line, adding at least a bit of size to that group, along with his trademark work ethic and defensive responsibility. Unfortunately, however, the absence of Hornqvist meant that a critical presence in front of the Chicago net was lost, as the Predators couldn't corral rebound opportunities (that were available aplenty) all night long.
The first special teams chance went to Chicago, when the Preds got whistled for Too Many Men just over five minutes in. Nashville killed it off very aggressively, getting as many good chances as the Blackhawks did. A few moments later, the story was reversed as Ladd went into the box for Interference for Chicago, and the Predators also failed to score.
From there, the Hawks started to create several dangerous chances in the Nashville end, but Jonathan Toews hit the crossbar, and the Chicago fans got really riled up when a puck that Pekka Rinne covered up was shoveled into the net, but well after the whistle had blown. After a furious back-and-forth sequence, Ryan Suter drew a Hooking call on Marian Ho$$a for a second PP chance for the Preds. But again, no goal... although Nashville was able to set up a few point shots at least.
Overall, the rest of the first period saw the Blackhawks generate most of the scoring opportunities, but the Preds' forecheckers were able to consistenly force the Chicago defense to cough up loose pucks and sloppy passes; the problem was, the Preds just couldn't convert any of those situations into a dangerous chance.
Early in the second, that propensity to bottle the Hawks in led to a great shift by Steve Sullivan, Nick Spaling and Dustin Boyd. Boyd got a shot and fired away at the rebound, but Antti Niemi made his best save of the series so far, flashing out the right pad to stop the shot. Just seconds later, however, Chicago took a Too Many Men penalty of their own, giving Nashville its 3rd PP of the game. While they didn't score, the Preds impressively worked the puck around and set up clear shots from the point, a trend which continued even after the power play expired. Dan Hamhuis fired several pucks through traffic to the Chicago net, but again, the Predators couldn't get control of the rebounds.
A Jordin Tootoo Tripping penalty led to the opening score of the game, a Dave Bolland backhander after Toews sent him a crossing pass out of a scrum to Rinne's left. That goal got the United Center jumping, and resulting Chicago pressure led to another power play when Jerred Smithson was called for Tripping on Colin Fraser. Add in a Holding call on Martin Erat, and the second period was a study in Nashville penalty killing. They ended the second down 1-0, in what was a fairly similar script to Game One, being outshot 26-12 to that point.
The Nashville faithful held out hope that the third period would somehow work itself out, and for a few minutes things looked pretty bright. But at the end of a bit of offensive zone pressure, Dan Hamhuis pinched in along the left boards in a failed bid to keep the puck in, and Kevin Klein (just why are those two out there together?) got caught defending a 2-on-1. He gave up too much space to Patrick Kane, however, who picked his spot and rifled a wrister past Rinne for a 2-0 lead with 15:42 left.
From that point on, despite some furious effort, emotions seemed to boil over for the Preds. Martin Erat took an awful Holding penalty along the boards, and Steve Sullivan (who was an emotional leader all night) retaliated to a Kris Versteeg crosscheck. The coincidental minors weren't that big a deal, but the fact that he turned away from the play to engage in a confrontation is really not what you'd expect from a veteran leader.
Minutes later, Shea Weber cross-checked Kane in the back (but come on, who wouldn't want to?) causing the Nashville PK group to go to work again. They did a fine job killing 4 of 5 Chicago power plays, but all that shorthanded work took away from any momentum the Preds were trying to build at even strength.
While they did get 11 shots on net in the 3rd (compared to 12 from the 1st and 2nd combined), they couldn't sneak one by Antti Niemi, who bounced back well from Game One.
As the teams head to Nashville, it's time for the Predators fan base to make itself a factor in this series. If they can defend home ice, they'll have an excellent chance to make some franchise history...
Kevin Klein had a particularly bad game tonight. He had two big turnovers in the defensive end, and a poor job on that 2-on-1 will have folks calling for him to sit when Denis Grebeshkov is ready to play. The problem there is that Trotz uses Klein a lot on the PK, so I doubt he'll head to the press box.
Have I mentioned how much I hate the NHL's injury non-disclosure policy? We have no idea what's going on with Patric Hornqvist, and frankly, I don't think we can trust whatever we hear from the team. This isn't a Preds-specific issue, it's an NHL one.
The Chicago D is still very, very vulnerable to an aggressive forecheck, but the Preds just couldn't capitalize tonight. That said, their defense put a lot of effort in to sweep away rebounds and break up some of the dangerous rushes Nashville hoped to develop through center ice.
I didn't really capture it in the recap above, but Pekka Rinne was outstanding once again. Nothing mind-blowing, but simply the solid goaltending he's put in since the Olympic break.
The top line of Erat-Arnott-Wilson just doesn't seem to be working so far. If things don't change early in Game 3, it may be time to switch things up.