Whatever the reasons – and there are several – the Nashville Predators have owned the Blackhawks this season. And that includes when center Jonathan Toews and defenseman Duncan Keith have been in the lineup.
The losses say it all.
The Predators picked up their fourth consecutive victory over the Hawks, a 6-1 drubbing Sunday at the United Center. It was their first meeting after Nashville played a big role in the Hawks’ awful nine-game losing streak by handing them three of those defeats.
With their latest triumph, the Predators, who have a considerably different lineup after the trade deadline and also welcomed back talented winger Alexander Radulov from Russia, have a four-point lead over the Hawks in the West. The only time the Hawks had a chance to celebrate against the Predators was after their 5-4 overtime victory on Oct. 31.
“It’s tough to say,” forward Patrick Sharp said when asked about the Predators’ success against them. “They’ve got a good goaltender. They’re well-coached. They play hard. Every time we’re matched up against them, it’s a tough one. I know we’ve beaten them in the past, [but] it seems like we’ve had trouble lately.”
The Predators got lucky bounces on some of their goals as Matt Halischuk, Andrei Kostitsyn, Patric Hornqvist, Francis Bouillon, Shea Weber and Mike Fisher scored. And not having Toews (concussion), Keith (suspension) and Marcus Kruger (concussion symptoms) hurt the Hawks.
But their absences and those bad bounces are easy excuses. The Predators were missing Martin Erat, who plays on their first line, and lost grinder Jordin Tootoo after he was pounded by Brandon Bollig in a fight.
“We have a good team that we put on the ice today and just didn’t play like it,” Sharp said.
Like Sharp said, there are no excuses for starting strong and fading after three days off and against a team that played the night before. The Predators’ defensive style took over in stretches, and the Hawks didn’t have a shot on goal in four power-play opportunities.
“[The power play] definitely let us down,” Sharp said.
Predators goalie Pekka Rinne swallowed everything in reach – excluding Viktor Stalberg’s goal as a power play expired in the third – for a 24-save victory. His best stop came on Johnny Oduya’s redirection early in the first period.
After winning five in a row and allowing five goals in those victories, Corey Crawford was chased after giving up four goals on 15 shots after 41 minutes, 47 seconds. He saw goals bounce off sticks and skates, including Hornqvist’s power-play tally for a 3-0 lead after Weber’s shot broke Marian Hossa’s stick and the puck bounced off Radulov’s skate.
“That wasn’t our team, and that wasn’t me,” Crawford said. “You just have to forget about that one, plain and simple.”
The Hawks had their motivations, too. They had a chance to tie the Predators in the standings with the same amount of games played, and it was their first game against them since coach Barry Trotz offered his “cheating” critique of their forwards’ play.
“They just outworked us,” defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson said. “It doesn’t really matter who’s playing; we just have to get a better effort out there.”