Tonight was the first of three consecutive matchups between the Nashville Predators and the Chicago Blackhawks, both scrapping for the fourth divisional playoff spot. The third team in the race, the Dallas Stars, is playing the Detroit Red Wings this week (and won tonight in a shootout); the Red Wings have not had a good year, making the Stars’ continuing victories likely and the Preds’ position here even more precarious.
The Predators, starting with the fourth line and the Mattias Ekholm-Ryan Ellis defense pairing again, had a strong first shift, but were then pushed back into their own end as the players changed. After that initial back-and-forth, play settled in, with the Predators getting the better of the first few minutes and eventually capitalizing as Matt Duchene got the final deflection on a shot pinballed past Hawks goalie Kevin Lankinen.
The next several minutes had no direct impact on the scoresheet. Juuse Saros gave up an exciting rebound, but managed to get it covered. Ryan Johansen got a shot on Lankinen while falling over, but—unsurprisingly—no dice. The Predators in general were able to spend more time in the offensive zone than they have against their recent opponents, but Lankinen was able to keep the door closed.
Unfortunately, with six minutes remaining in the period, Ekholm was called for tripping and Alex DeBrincat scored on the ensuing Hawks power play. Only a couple of minutes later, Yakov Trenin joined the new parade to the penalty box. Erik Haula got tripped in the offensive zone, but the referees declined to even out the play with some four-on-four and the arena reacted angrily. This time, the Predators were able to kill the penalty, but not to restore their lead before the end of the period.
Once again, the Predators came out strong, controlling much of the first several minutes of play. Calle Järnkrok, playing in his 500th NHL game tonight, scored off a spectacular behind-the-net pass from Mikael Granlund to put the Preds back up 2-1. Just after that, Ekholm scored to extend the lead.
With six and a half minutes elapsed in the period, Calvin de Haan was called for holding the stick, and the Predators’ power play got some great chances—and then it turned out that they’d gotten those chances with six men on the ice. Nobody scored in the shift of four-on-four, and the Predators were able to kill off the Blackhawks’ power play as well.
As the period continued, the Hawks came back aggressively, setting up camp in front of Saros and eventually scoring through major traffic to narrow the Preds’ lead again. The eventual goal came courtesy of David Kampf, though de Haan and Adam Gaudette had their chances as well. Unsatisfied, the Hawks continued pressing, with one of the Predators’ few forays out of the defensive zone marked by Viktor Arvidsson getting crushed to the ice under a Hawks defender.
Luke Kunin almost managed to stretch the lead again with a few minutes left in the second, thanks to a great passing play started by Matt Benning, but the play was broken up at the absolute last second by Kirby Dach. Shortly after that, Kunin was finally able to draw a penalty—a well-deserved one; Kunin has spent the period drawing Duncan Keith’s ire—sending the Predators back on the power play. It was not a good performance.
Gaining momentum off their successful penalty kill, the Hawks went right back on the attack, pushing the Predators into repeated icings in the final couple minutes of the period. The second one was icing by inches, as Mikael Granlund tried to get the puck on net from the far end of the ice. Intermission came just in time to rescue the tired Preds.
As the third period began, Tanner Jeannot scored to put the Predators up 4-2, and the Preds continued on the attack. Eighteen seconds later, Kunin finally managed to get the goal he’d been trying for all night—thanks to another great pass from Granlund—and Malcolm Subban skated out to relieve Kevin Lankinen still with less than a minute elapsed in the period.
That galvanized both the crowd and the Blackhawks, differently; the Hawks set up shop with another long offensive-zone cycle, and then continued to press. With a little more than fourteen minutes remaining, the Predators left a puck just sitting in front of Saros for a pulse-spikingly long time, but Saros was able to stop the shot when it came.
Matt Benning, who’s had a great game, took a high stick to the face and got bloodied. He went down the tunnel, Pius Suter went to the penalty box, and the Nashville Predators went to the power play. DeBrincat got a spectacular chance early off a shorthanded breakaway, but Saros made the save; that was the best chance for either team on the four-minute power play.
The halfway point of the period passed, and the Hawks continued to try to even things up. They were aided in this as Ryan Johansen took an offensive-zone penalty with 13:44 elapsed in the period. Arvidsson hit the post on a breakaway just after the penalty expired, and shortly after that a scuffle broke out as Keith went after Duchene and Nick Cousins got involved as well.
Worth noting again that Keith has gotten away with a ton this game, including, just now, driving Duchene to the ice and cross-checking him across the back of the neck. Must be nice to be a Conn Smythe winner and a multi-time Norris finalist, is all I have to say about that. Somehow, out of everything that happened, Alex DeBrincat ended up in the penalty box, with Keith and Cousins both still on the ice, and the Predators were given another power play to squander.
A bad defensive-zone turnover on the power play fortunately involved the play going offside before the Hawks could do anything with it. As play returned to even strength in the final minute of the period, both teams traded attacks, and then with eleven seconds remaining in the period Haula took a penalty, and Sissons and Trenin combined for the final chance of the game shorthanded.
Three Stars of the Game
- Luke Kunin — he absolutely earned that goal, and what an impression it made. Kunin was working for it all night, in all situations, and got pretty well beat up by the Hawks’ defenders along the way.
- Mikael Granlund — two gorgeous primary assists. He made both Kunin’s goal and Järnkrok’s goal happen, and what a sight it was.
- Tanner Jeannot — I almost gave this one to Matt Benning, who really did have a good game, but Benning is temporary. Jeannot hasn’t looked quite as good on paper as he has to the eye test, but I only found that out double-checking right now, and Jeannot is giving me a real sense of optimism with a lot of other rookie talent out with injuries. He’s fun to watch, and he has the chance to be fun to watch for the Preds for a while longer.
- With the Stars winning tonight, they remain three points back with three games in hand. The Predators can’t let up, and they—more or less—played like it tonight. I’d like to see them figure out a solution on the power play with Filip Forsberg and Eeli Tolvanen still out, though; they didn’t end up needing it this game, but there will be games where they need to be able to score on the power play.
- On a related note, this week is likely to get chippy. Chippier? We’ve seen more vigilante scuffles by the team since Roman Josi’s injury, but although it does impact and reflect morale that’s still not a solution for winning games. A team with a really dangerous power play is a lot more of a deterrent: “we can’t take a penalty here” is a thing coaches will remind players about, while “you don’t want to maybe get shoved” isn’t.
- If the Predators can keep up their strong play against Chicago, they might be able to neutralize the schedule advantage the Stars should have. Sorry; I know all the three thoughts are related tonight, but that’s the big issue we’re more or less all thinking about anyway.