By Brad Gardner
The Blackhawks completed the weekend sweep of the Predators with a 5-3 victory on Sunday night at the United Center, becoming the first team in the league to clinch a playoff berth.
A pair of goals inside of one minute during the third period was the difference for Chicago, which beat Nashville for fourth time this season. The Blackhawks moved to 9-0-0 in the second game of back-to-backs during this condensed season.
Ray Emery earned a second consecutive start after shutting out the Predators on 20 shots in Nashville on Saturday. He stopped 19 of 22 shots in this one, coming up with key saves during the second and third periods while the game was still up for grabs.
During most of the first period, the Blackhawks skaters seemed intent on repaying Emery for his perfect performance the day before. The Preds managed only four shots through the first 17 minutes of the game, due mostly to the offensive zone possession of the Blackhawks.
Just like Saturday, the Blackhawks got an early goal from the bottom-six when Andrew Shaw redirected a puck past Rinne. Shaw carried the puck into the zone and got the original shot off, but Rinne directed it to the boards. Michael Frolik recovered the loose puck, turned, and sent a quick shot towards the crease, where Shaw was able to get his stick on it and redirect it through Rinne to put the Blackhawks up 1-0.
Despite a significant advantage for the home team in terms of shots and offensive zone time in the first period, the Predators were able to draw the score even at the 17:16 mark of the first. A defensive zone pass from Jonathan Toews was in the skates of Johnny Oduya, allowing Sergei Kostitsyn time to pick up the loose puck. Kostitsyn found Nick Spaling in front of the net, and although Emery was able to stop his first attempt, Spaling had time to get off a second attempt on the rebound and put it past Emery to tie the game 1-1 heading into the first intermission.
Just over two minutes into the second period, the Hawks’ third line came through to put the team back up by a goal. Viktor Stalberg poked the puck past Nashville defenseman Kevin Klein in the neutral zone to spring Bryan Bickell on a breakaway. His quick shot muscled it’s way through Rinne’s five hole to make it a 2-1 game.
This lead would be short-lived however, as Shea Weber’s one-timer off a faceoff beat Emery to the blocker side. Andrew Shaw was thrown out of the circle, forcing Frolik to take the draw. Spaling won the puck straight back to Weber, who sent an accurate one-timer to the far side and past Emery, knotting the game at two goals apiece.
The teams remained tied 2-2 heading into the second intermission, but the Predators came up with the better chances early in the third period and eventually cashed in on a scramble around Emery’s net. Nick Leddy mishandled a puck behind his net and it was picked up by Matt Halischuk. David Legwand slammed the centering pass past Emery, giving Nashville it’s first lead of the game at the 6:54 mark of the third period.
Brandon Saad registered the equalizer for the Blackhawks less than three minutes later. Saad’s initial attempt was to set up Duncan Keith as he pinched in with a pass between his legs, but Keith was unable to handle the puck. Saad recovered the puck on top of Rinne’s crease and swept the puck between the legs of the Nashville goaltender to make it 3-3.
Just 55 seconds later, Toews rifled a shot past Rinne after a Nashville turnover. Patrick Kane got in on the forecheck and lifted the stick of Jonathan Blum. Kane stole the puck and hit Toews on the tape with a pass as he came streaking into the zone. His shot was heavy and accurate, deflecting off the inside corner of the post and into the net to give Chicago a 4-3 lead.
Emery stood tall the rest of the way and Kane sealed the victory with an empty-net goal set up by a pass from Saad in the neutral zone, giving the Blackhawks a 5-3 victory.
– The Predators held a 42-22 advantage in the hit column.
– The Blackhawks won 32 draws to Nashville’s 22 wins. Kruger and Toews were each around 70% for the game, while Michal Handzus continued his solid center play by winning eight of his 14 draws. The newest addition to the Hawks lineup was quieter in the offensive end in this game. He was a plus-1 with no shots while his wingers, Stalberg and Bickell, each registered four shots on goal.
– After only three penalties in Saturday’s game, each team limited themselves to a single minor penalty on Sunday. Both clubs have been struggling of late on the man advantage and they were each unsuccessful on their lone power play opportunity.
– Patrick Kane reached the 20-goal mark for a sixth consecutive season to begin his career. Toews is one goal away from duplicating the feat.
– Kane, after being held scoreless on Saturday for the eighth time this season, was having a relatively quiet game skating with Kruger and Carcillo, but he came up big in the third period after he was moved up to the first line with Toews and Saad. Kane would have picked up a secondary assist on the Saad goal had Keith not tipped the puck on his fly-by.
– All four lines had good shifts during the dominant first 17 minutes, but the fourth line of Michael Frolik, Andrew Shaw, and Brandon Bollig managed to put pressure on the Predators each time they hit the ice. That line finished the game with a combined eight shots in addition to the opening goal.
– Dave Bolland and Patrick Sharp remained out for the Blackhawks. The Predators were without Mike Fisher, who played hurt Saturday, as well as other top forwards Gabriel Bourque, Colin Wilson, and Paul Gaustad.
– Austin Watson made his NHL debut for the Predators. Selected 18th overall in 2010, the big forward is in his first professional season.
– 3 Stars of the Game: 3. Andrew Shaw… 2. Brandon Saad… 1. Jonathan Toews
– The Blackhawks will take on the Wild in Minnesota on Tuesday at 7pm central.