By Chris Block
The Blackhawks kept the recent string of dominance over their top competition in the West on Saturday. Chicago skated through Music City taking a 3-1 victory from the Nashville Predators before the typical Blackhawks fan-laden crowd at Bridgestone Arena.
Brandon Saad was the offensive darling of the night, scoring his 6th of the season in the first period to get the Hawks going. Saad then set up Marian Hossa for an easy goal in the second that proved to be the game-winner. Starter Scott Darling and the Hawks withstood a strong third period Predators pushback to preserve the win.
Darling stopped 32 of 33 shots in earning his 3rd win in 4 NHL starts. Pekka Rinne made 28 saves against 30 shots in taking the loss. Hossa potted an empty-netter with 1:11 to go to seal the win. Hossa had just 1 goal in his previous 16 games going into Saturday night in Nashville.
Chicago (18-8-1, 37pts, .685) jumped over Nashville (17-7-2, 36pts) and into 1st place in the Central with the victory, though the Predators do have a game in hand and own a better points-earned percentage (.692) still. It caps a week that saw the Hawks pass the Preds and Blues in the standings both by head-to-head wins as well as beating Montreal, one of the top teams in the East right now as well.
And thus the Hawks have finally hit their stride. In this six game win streak, Chicago has outscored the opposition 22-9 and that’s with only managing 3 power play goals over the stretch. At the same time, their penalty kill continues its brilliant season, having surrendered 1 goal against in 17 chances in the past six contests. The Hawks’ PK remains atop the NHL, running at 91.1% efficiency, over a point and a half better than the 2nd best team, Minnesota.
The Hawks flew home after the game but they’ll get back on their plane Monday when they set off for three games out east against New Jersey (Tuesday), Boston (Thursday) and the New York Islanders (Saturday). New Jersey has tumbled of late (2-6-2 last ten) and Boston has been merely average without Zdeno Chara and David Krejci. The Bruins got swept by the three California teams out West last week. The Islanders hold the best points-earned percentage in the NHL (breathe for a minute) but their blue line has recently been decimated by injuries. So this three-game journey isn’t as daunting as it may have appeared a couple weeks ago.
Nashville has been the surprise team of the Central so far, mostly due to its unheralded blue line, which in a year or two will be regarded as one of the best in the NHL.
But on Saturday the Predators were no match for the streaking Blackhawks.
Klas Dahlbeck made his NHL debut on the Blackhawks blue line. He was paired, as Adam Clendening and Trevor van Riemsdyk before him, with veteran Michal Rozsival. Dahlbeck was decent in his first showing, or about as good as could be expected. Joel Quenneville was happy with Dahlbeck’s game, saying afterwards, “I liked him. He’s got some motion. He’s got some size. Got some movement to his game, got a long stick. And he defends with a purpose, too. It’s a good start for him.”
Dahlbeck did have a case of happy hands, especially early in the game – his passes being off the mark with the Kane line in particular, and some quick ups he missed because you could tell he was a little nervous about making a mistake or committing a turnover in his own end in his first game. On the defensive side, Dahlbeck’s specialty, he was poised and showed no fear in his first game. Quenneville wasn’t afraid to call his number late too, so that’s a positive sign for the big Swedish defenseman.
During a delayed penalty call, on the end of his first NHL shift, Dahlbeck joined a rush and got a drop pass from Joakim Nordstrom and nearly connected back with Nordstrom for what would have been an easy goal for the winger if not for a perfect Seth Jones’ stick check.
Andrew Shaw made some noise later when he checked James Neal at the Hawks’ bench then shoved Neal into the bench for good measure 10 minutes in. The shove into the bench really should have been an interference penalty, because if that’s not interference, I’m not sure what is. Shaw got a little revenge on Neal here, who had stripped Shaw of the puck in the Hawks’ end seconds earlier.
Brandon Saad ripped a wrister by Pekka Rinne’s glove fifteen minutes into the game to give the Hawks the game’s first lead. The play developed after the Preds had a miserable time moving the puck out of their own end against the Hawks’ top line. Once finally in the neutral zone, Duncan Keith stood in Eric Nystrom’s way and stripped him of the puck. But it was the back pressure of Marian Hossa, who lifted Nystrom’s stick, allowing Keith to swat the puck away. Saad was in the area. He grabbed the puck, chugged up the left wing and released his shot from the left circle at 14:53.
Shots after twenty minutes favored the home team, 13-10. However, the Hawks had the better scoring chances overall.
The second period was all Hawks.
Saad’s speed generated a 2-0 lead for the Hawks when he setup Marian Hossa at 2:48 of the second period for Hossa’s elusive 4th goal of the season. Brent Seabrook started the play when he slipped a pass to Saad with three Predators around Saad. But with Saad pumping his legs he was able to split those defenders and drive towards Rinne’s goal around Roman Josi. Jonathan Toews also drove to the net, drawing Shea Weber with him, which left Hossa alone on the weak side for the easy goal off a backhand pass from Saad.
With 7:22 left in the second. Seth Jones cross-checked Bryan Bickell from behind as Bickell was driving to the net with Carcillo carrying. Bickell crashed into the right post as result and knocked the net off its moorings. Apparently unaware of Jones’ push, Victor Bartley jumped Bickell for making contact with Rinne. Chicago got a two minute power play as a result. Bartley and Bickell were given matching fighting majors and Bartley got the extra minor for interference. That was the extent of Bickell’s contributions in this game.
The Hawks failed to convert on the ensuing power play, which went 0 for 2 on the night. The unit is 1-17 in the last five games.
Colin Wilson trimmed the Hawks’ lead to 2-1 just 34 seconds into the 3rd. Ben Smith lost a defensive zone draw clean to Mike Fisher. The puck was worked back to Viktor Bartley at the left point, who chipped it back down to Wilson on the half wall. Wilson released a snap shot from just outside the left circle using Smith as a partial screen beat Darling far side over the left shoulder.
Wilson had an opportunity to tie the game three minutes later when Darling kicked a Mike Fisher chance right out to Wilson, but the puck hopped over Wilson’s blade. In the eighth minute of the period, Hossa tried to return Saad’s earlier favor with a backhand feed from behind Rinne’s goal but the pass didn’t have enough steam on it and had Saad reaching for it. Brad Richards coughed up a puck in front of Darling with 10:25 to go but Darling was able to stop a weak wrister off the stick of Fisher.
Hossa and Saad had a two-on-one with Hossa carrying but Hossa was forced to shoot and his shot deflected up and over the goal. Down to other end Darling made a big right pad stop on Nystrom with 5:30 to go.
Then, just after Rinne came off for the extra attacker, Hossa found a Nashville giveaway Mattias Ekholm left at center ice and sealed the win. Hossa potted his second of the night into the empty Predators’ goal.
–Hawks are 9-0-0 when leading going into the 3rd period.
–The way Quenneville’s using the trio right now it’s hard not to refer to Nordstrom-Kruger-Smith as the Hawks’ third line. The coach will have a really tough decision to make this week when Patrick Sharp returns.
Nordstrom is such a smart player and fits perfectly with the other two. It’s a keep-it-simple, checking, bump line. And it’s rock-solid for Quenneville right now. Nordstrom is so sound positionaly and if it were solely up to Quenneville, I can’t imagine he’d voluntarily break that line up at this time.
But it may also come down to what Bowman does with Jeremy Morin. Someone on the main roster has to be dropped off in some way to activate Sharp. They could send Dahlbeck back down and go with six defense on for the road trip, crossing their fingers that no one gets hurt, but that’s not something they’ve done voluntarily in the past.
It’s believed Morin’s agent has said the magic words and Bowman is working on making a deal. If one doesn’t come by Tuesday morning, Sharp could be held off until Thursday, or Nordstrom could be sent back down, which would be incredibly unfair to Nordstrom given how well he’s performed in his role. I couldn’t see Bowman risking losing Morin for nothing by exposing Morin to waivers this week. Especially on the heels of the Kevin Hayes saga this past summer. I can’t criticize the decision to keep Morin around and roll the dice in case of injuries. But those injuries and other chances have come and gone now and Morin still hasn’t been able to turn the organization’s opinion of him around. They haven’t liked him really since the fall of 2011. Morin’s had his opportunities. I can’t say they’ve been unfair to him for the most part. Outside of this year’s training camp when he wasn’t given an opportunity to show what he could do on a scoring line in exhibition games when those spots were there, which made no sense whatsoever.
Joel Quenneville’s lines, pairs, scratches & specials 12/6 in Nashville
20-Brandon Saad / 19-Jonathan Toews / 81-Marian Hossa
23-Kris Versteeg / 91-Brad Richards / 88-Patrick Kane
29-Bryan Bickell / 65-Andrew Shaw / 13-Dan Carcillo
42-Joakim Nordstrom / 16-Marcus Kruger / 28-Ben Smith
2-Duncan Keith / 7-Brent Seabrook
27-Johnny Oduya / 4-Niklas Hjalmarsson
44-Klas Dahlbeck / 32-Michal Rozsival
31-Antti Raanta (back up)
Scratches: G-50-Corey Crawford (foot/ankle)… LW-10-Patrick Sharp (lower)… D-5-David Rundblad…. LW-11-Jeremy Morin….
Power play I: Versteeg-Toews-Kane w/ Kane & Richards
Power play II: Saad-Shaw-Hossa w/ Seabrook & Rozsival
PK forwards: Kruger-Smith, Toews-Hossa
PK defense: Keith-Hjalmarsson, Oduya-Seabrook
Nashville Predators lineup Saturday vs Blackhawks
18-James Neal / 63-Mike Ribeiro / 9-Filip Forsberg
24-Eric Nystrom / 12-Mike Fisher / 41-Taylor Beck
33-Colin Wilson / 19-Calle Jarnkrok / 15-Craig Smith
7-Matt Cullen / 13-Olli Jokinen / 57-Gabriel Bourque
59-Roman Josi / 6-Shea Weber
64-Victor Bartley / 3-Seth Jones
14-Mattias Ekholm / 4-Ryan Ellis
30-Carter Hutton (backup)
Power play I: Neal-Fisher-Forsberg w/Josi & Weber
Power play II: Wilson-Ribeiro-Smith w/ Ellis & Jones
PK forwards: Cullen-Jokinen, Fisher-Nystrom, Jarnkrok, Beck
PK defense: Josi-Weber, Ekholm-Ellis