NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Chicago Blackhawks have plenty of offence.
With the regular season starting to wind down, they’re providing a strong reminder that they can play pretty stingy defence, too.
Bryan Bickell scored in the first period, and Ray Emery made 20 saves and the Blackhawks beat the Nashville Predators 1-0 Saturday for their third win in four games.
“That’s a team that you’ve really got to play some boring hockey against,” Emery said of Nashville. “You just try to be in good defensive position and take advantage when you get the opportunity. And I thought we played that strategy to a T tonight.”
Chicago improved to 12-0-1 against the Central Division this season and moved closer to clinching the playoff berth.
The Blackhawks won their third against Nashville this season and second in six days. They’ll have a chance at their third in a week Sunday night in Chicago as these teams wrap up a back-to-back.
Emery posted his second shutout and the 13th of his career, and Chicago improved to 16-3-4 in one-goal games this season. Chicago coach Joel Quenneville called Emery rock solid in doing what he had to do for the shutout.
“I thought he was in control around the net against that team,” Quenneville said. “There are a lot of scrambles, a lot of loose stuff. They create traffic, and I thought he found pucks and froze them and looked very big.”
Chicago came in needing just four points to clinch that playoff berth. Now Blackhawks could clinch before taking the ice Sunday with losses by a couple other teams.
With the afternoon faceoff, enough of the Blackhawks’ faithful got a flight to Nashville to make it feel like the United Center chanting, “Let’s go Hawks” even before the puck dropped. The arena was packed with 17,256 fans in attendance in a building whose capacity is listed at 17,113.
The Predators are the Western Conference’s only team to reach the semifinals each of the past two seasons but desperately needed a win with only nine games left.
Instead, Nashville lost its second straight and fourth in five games playing Saturday without centre Paul Gaustad, whose upper body injury will keep him out at least a couple more games along with left wing Gabriel Bourque and forward Colin Wilson, who’s been out since March 9.
“A few deletions obviously at the trade deadline so we’re a little thin,” Nashville coach Barry Trotz said. “But guys gave it everything they had, and we almost got that thing tied up.”
They had their chances in the third with a double minor when Daniel Carcillo high-sticked Nashville captain Shea Weber, nicking the defenceman’s nose and drawing blood at 7:58 of the third.
But the Blackhawks improved to 16 of their past 16 penalty kills. Patric Hornqvist poked away a would-be empty netter by Chicago right wing Michael Frolik with 1:30 left as he slid into the goal post knocking it off its moorings.
Nashville took its timeout only to see Emery stop several chances including a wraparound pass from Taylor Beck to Hornqvist. Brandon Yip was just wide of the net before the final horn.
Predators goalie Pekka Rinne called it a tough loss.
“Obviously you know the standings and everything, but you try not to look at it right now,” Rinne said. “You try to focus on one game at a time. Now it’s tomorrow night, and it is not going to get any easier. We have a pretty big task on our hands if we want to make it and we have to start winning some games.”
The Blackhawks jumped out to a 1-0 lead when Michal Handzus found Bickell on a cross-ice pass that Bickell one-timed past Rinne catching the Nashville goalie out of position at 5:31 of the first period. Trotz wasn’t happy with defenceman Jonathan Blum’s play on the 2-on-1.
“Give our goalie a chance to make a save,” Trotz said. “The way he played that he just left Peks out to dry.”
Bickell credited Marcus Kruger with starting the play for Chicago, and the result gave him plenty of space to shoot.
“He set both the goalie and the defenceman over to give me the empty net,” Bickell said.
Chicago outshot Nashville 10-2 with one of the Predators’ rare chances broken up when Blackhawks defenceman Brent Seabrook hooked Nick Spaling on a breakaway chance.
Nashville managed a late flurry, but Emery had a kick save on a Weber shot with 1:05 left in the first.
In the second, Emery stopped David Legwand from in front, got help when a Chicago forward tripped Matt Halischuk at the crease and then the goalie made a stop on Spaling as the Predators spent more time in the offensive zone.
Notes: Patrick Kane gave Chicago fans a bit of a scare early in the second when he appeared to catch an edge and his knees smashed into the goal post. He skated slowly to the bench before returning. … Nashville defenceman Hal Gill turned 38 Saturday, and he’s the only player over 37 to play for the Predators. He’s 18th among active players, having played 1,093 games.