These weren’t the new-look Nashville Predators, the aggressive, offensively minded group that tries to score goals, not simply prevent them. These were the old-school Predators — diving in front of shots, sliding in front of shots, stepping in front of shots. Clogging the neutral zone. Steering oncoming forwards out wide and then sagging in the middle.
For much of the final two periods Thursday night, the Predators looked like they were on an extended penalty-kill, holding on for dear life as the Blackhawks woke up from a sleepy first period.
It’s not pretty. And it might not be sustainable. But it worked in Game 1 of the first-round Stanley Cup playoff series at the United Center, mostly because Pekka Rinne went old-school, too, looking like his former All-Star self in a 1-0 shutout of the Hawks.
It was an emphatic reminder that, against the Predators, the first goal is even more important than usual.
“We want to play ahead and not have to play catch-up and try and win games from behind, especially against a team like this, with how stingy they are defensively,” captain Jonathan Toews said. “We’re down one goal all night. One goal shouldn’t stand. Unfortunately, we just couldn’t quite solve their goaltender and find a way to put one in.”
There was no panic among the Hawks, of course, the veteran players having been through far more dire situations than losing home-ice advantage in the first game of a seven-game series. And the fact is, if the rest of the series looks like the last two periods did — the Hawks thrusting, the Predators parrying — it’s going to take a superhuman effort by Rinne to steal the series.
The Hawks dominated the puck for the final 40 minutes, and despite the Predators’ shot-blocking efforts, had a few golden scoring chances. But Rinne made big saves on Patrick Kane and Artem Anisimov in the second period, then staved off the Hawks in a frantic third. Rinne finished with 29 saves, outdueling Corey Crawford, who was sharp in making 19 stops.
“He looked all right tonight because we didn’t make it tough on him,” coach Joel Quenneville said of Rinne. “Any goalie who sees the puck as much as he did tonight is going to be effective.”
There certainly was room for improvement. For all the perennial talk about how good the tried and tested Hawks are at flipping the switch come the playoffs after the endless drudgery of the regular season, they spent the first 20 minutes looking like a team that was still groping to find it in the dark. After a decent first few minutes, the Hawks went nearly 14 minutes without a shot on goal.
Early in that drought, the Hawks’ top line had a disastrous defensive shift that led directly to a Viktor Arvidsson goal. Nick Schmaltz, Richard Panik and Toews all converged on the puck at the same time, but none of them actually went for it. Instead, they fell over each other before Ryan Johansen sent the puck across to Filip Forsberg, whose shot on goal was redirected past Corey Crawford by Arvidsson.
“All five of us got [caught] watching,” Toews said. “Obviously, we can’t be standing around. Someone’s got to step up and just make the simple play.”
Schmaltz was temporarily benched after that, playing less than two minutes in the second period, with Tanner Kero taking his spot on the top line. Quenneville also started double-shifting Patrick Kane on the fourth line as the Hawks took over the game in the second. But despite several extended shifts in the offensive zone, they only had a modest 12 shots on goal in the period, unable to break through the Nashville defense and Rinne. The third period was more of the same, with the Hawks outshooting Nashville 11-5.
Most nights, it’s a winning formula. Not Thursday night.
“If we give up those kind of chances [like tonight] every night, we’d be very happy with our team game,” Quenneville said.
Game 2 is Saturday night. A better start could help avoid a similar fate.
“They out-battled us a little bit, that’s why we couldn’t get into those dangerous areas in front of their goalie,” defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson said. “The intensity level has to go up a couple of levels.”
Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.