CHICAGO – Antti Niemi’s mind was clear and his game was sharp. It was just what the Chicago Blackhawks needed to even up their first-round series with the Nashville Predators
“I just wanted to get ready like every other game. I didn’t want to think about too much,” Niemi said after making 23 saves in his second career playoff game to help the Blackhawks beat the Predators 2-0 on Sunday night.
Niemi, a rookie, didn’t dwell on his first playoff game two nights earlier when he gave up two goals, one on a bouncing puck in a 4-1 loss in the series opener. That loss put Sunday night’s game into the must-win category for the Blackhawks with Games 3 and 4 in the Western Conference series slated for Nashville on Tuesday and Thursday.
“You don’t want to focus on, ‘This is a big game.’ You want it to be like every other,” Niemi said.
Chicago got a power-play goal from Dave Bolland and a score from Patrick Kane on a 3-on-1 break in the final period against Pekka Rinne, who had 31 saves.
But it was Chicago’s defence that led the way. The Blackhawks had 13 blocked shots against the Predators, who were without leading scorer Patric Hornqvist, a scratch with an upper-body injury. The 30-goal scorer, who played 13 minutes in Game 1, is expected to return for Game 3. He had taken a slapshot off the body on April 7.
“Nobody really filled his role,” Nashville coach Barry Trotz said. “I thought their goaltender saw way too many pucks. We made it easy on him. … You’ve got to fight for inches. We didn’t fight for those inches. We need to be in his face a little more and make him fight through and find pucks.”
The Predators’ offence was lacking a bit without Hornqvist
“We missed him,” teammate Steve Sullivan said. “He’s a big presence there. He’s a talent. He’s got great hands in traffic.”
On the power play, Jonathan Toews took a pass in traffic in front of the net from Kane and then in turn found Bolland in the left circle and his backhander gave the Blackhawks a 1-0 lead at 8:44 of the second.
It was the fifth career playoff goal for Bolland, who scored six goals and played only 39 games this season after back surgery.
“It’s a relief. It’s big to be tied and not down two going into their barn,” Bolland said.
Rinne made a sprawling save minutes later on another power play, stopping a shot by Marian Hossa to keep the Blackhawks’ lead at that point to a single goal.
The Predators, who had the fewest penalty minutes per game of any team in the NHL this season, were called for three straight in the second period.
Kane came down on the 3-on-1 break ? one of the few breaks the Blackhawks have had in the first two games against Nashville’s tough defence ? held the puck on his stick as if he might pass and then rifled it past Rinne on the stick side for a 2-0 lead with more four minutes elapsed in the final period.
“I figured the goalie was expecting a pass, so I just took a look at the net and fired,” Kane said.
Niemi made two quick saves on good chances by against Dustin Boyd ? one with his right pad ? early in the second period to keep it scoreless. And then he stopped a hard slapper from Marcel Goc early in the third before Kane increased the lead to two.
“Antti came off a game where we were all disappointed. It was a nice response by him,” Chicago Joel Quenneville said.
“We were more tenacious in the puck area, we had more traffic at the net, better board play and better in the scrum areas. … There was more energy in our game.”
Chicago’s best first-period scoring chance came when Marian Hossa made a nice pass across the crease to Toews. But with Rinne leaning to one side and the net partially open, Toews hit the crossbar with his shot.
Bolland knocked the puck in the net 42 seconds later, but it was disallowed because it came after the whistle when Rinne went to his knees to cover it up. That prompted a loud profane cheer from the crowd at the United Center.
The Blackhawks had a 13-5 shots edge in the first period but couldn’t convert. The Predators went on two power plays but couldn’t solve Niemi.
NOTES: The Predators won the first game of their 2006 series with San Jose and then lost four straight. … The Blackhawks have a 16-39 series record when losing the first game.