CHICAGO – Nashville’s power play has been in a deep freeze and the Predators could use a breakout Saturday in Game 5 of their opening-round series against the Chicago Blackhawks.
Chicago rookie goalie Antti Niemi, who has posted two shutouts in his four career playoff games, and shot-blocking defenceman Brent Sopel have played key roles in Nashville’s 0-for-17 performance on the power play. The series is tied 2-2.
“We’re hoping it’s ready to burst, 0-and-17, oh and forever is not going to cut it,” Nashville’s Steve Sullivan said Friday.
“You look at the difference in some games, it’s been the power play.”
Returning to their noisy home ice, the Blackhawks hope to keep the defensive pressure on the Predators, who won Games 1 and 3, but have been without leading goal scorer Patric Hornqvist the last three games.
Hornqvist, who had 30 goals in the regular season, has been skating in practice but not been able to play since the opener because of an upper body injury. His status for Saturday is not known.
Nashville right winger Jordin Tootoo, who was hit in the face by a deflected puck in Chicago’s 3-0 win Thursday night, needed about 45 stitches to close the wound. He couldn’t practise Friday and was meeting with a plastic surgeon, but hopes to play Saturday.
The Blackhawks were able to kill off a 5-on-3 Nashville power play for more than a minute in the opening period Thursday night with Sopel making two blocks to preserve what was a 1-0 Chicago lead at the time.
“The old saying goes … your best penalty killer is your goalie. I know it’s a cliche, but it’s the truth,” Chicago centre John Madden said. “He (Niemi) made some huge saves for us. Brent Sopel on the 5-on-3 made some huge blocks. It just shows a lot of guts to get in front of those shots.”
Chicago’s Duncan Keith, a finalist for the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenceman, said the Blackhawks have never wavered in their feeling about Niemi, who took over the job from Cristobal Huet in the final stretch of the season. He had 33 saves Thursday night and had seven shutouts in the regular season.
“He’s played great for us, a lot of shutouts. We have a lot of confidence back there with him in the net. He’s been a rock back there for us,” Keith said.
Sopel has been sacrificing his body all season?he was fourth on the team with 120 blocks during the regular season. It can be a painful job.
“If the puck hits me, it’s obviously not going into the net,” Sopel said. “If we can knock those down, it gives us a chance to do what we want to do.”
The Predators’ power play has lacked punch, but they’ve outshot the Blackhawks two games in a row?Chicago’s plus-9 shot differential this season led the NHL?and lead the series in hits 128-86.
But now they must find a way to stoke up the offence, maintain their physical play and win a second game at the United Center, where Chicago had 29 victories this season. The Predators captured the opener at the Blackhawks’ home ice 4-1, scoring all of their goals in the final period, including a pair of empty-netters.
The Blackhawks concentrated on getting more traffic in front of the net Thursday night, enhancing their rebound chances and cutting down on goalie Pekka Rinne’s ability to see the puck.
They also got an inspirational lift from defenceman Brian Campbell, who played for first time since March 14 after suffering a broken collarbone. And they got two goals from Patrick Sharp?his first score coming on a power play when he was camped in front of the net.
“Their first goal it wasn’t a pretty one with all the talent they have. It was just a gritty goal,” Sullivan said.
“We have to simplify, keep getting shots on net and just being a bit more determined around the net.”
Sharp was able to get his game untracked and the Predators are hoping Jason Arnott and Sullivan can do the same. Arnott has taken a team-high 16 shots and has yet to score.
Sullivan, tied with Hornqvist for most points in regular season with 51, has five shots with no goals and two assists.
“It’s frustrating no question,” Arnott said. “Just to pick up an assist here or there would be really nice. In the playoffs it’s hard to get down on yourself. You’ve got to stay positive, just try to do the little things right and hopefully pucks will go in for me.”
AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tenn., contributed to this report.