CHICAGO – Roman Josi and Nashville’s dangerous defencemen did it all against the Chicago Blackhawks.
That is why Pekka Rinne believes the blue-liners are the biggest key for a strong finish to the Predators’ disappointing season.
Josi had three assists, and Ryan Ellis scored in the third period to lead the Predators to a 3-2 victory over the Blackhawks on Friday night.
“If we win or lose, usually it’s the D-men,” said Rinne, who made with 31 saves. “The talent we have on the back end, we’re pretty fortunate to have that kind of depth in the defence.”
Shea Weber also had his team-best 27th assist as Nashville’s defencemen combined for five points in the Predators’ third consecutive win. Weber also leads the team with 43 points, and Josi jumped into a tie with Patric Hornqvist for second on the team with 21 assists.
“That’s the strength really of our group, our D-men,” coach Barry Trotz said. “They’re all young and talented. We’re the youngest team in the league by three years on the blue line. The future is really bright for us there. Now we’ve got to work on trying to get those elite forwards like the Blackhawks have.”
It was the second straight loss for Chicago, which is struggling to keep up with the top contenders in the rugged Western Conference. The reigning Stanley Cup champions dropped to 10-8-7 in 2014.
Jonathan Toews and Peter Regin scored for the Blackhawks, and Corey Crawford made 26 saves in his 200th NHL game.
“We’re putting ourself in tough situations by not starting well and getting away from our team game,” Toews said. “Not much of an explanation, but we know we need better right now. We need to get out of this trend we’re in right now.”
Mike Fisher and Hornqvist also scored for Nashville, which has won two of three against Chicago this season.
Ellis’ fourth goal of the season came right after the Predators killed a holding penalty on the defenceman that carried over into the third. He jumped out of the box, got a long pass from Josi and beat Crawford on a breakaway to make it 3-1 just 45 seconds into the period.
“I was just fortunate enough to time it right,” Ellis said. “Josi made a great play with a blocked shot then a tape-to-tape pass through the zone.”
Regin’s tip-in got the Blackhawks within one again at 11:28, but they were unable to tie it. Regin’s second goal with Chicago came after Toews sent a wide-open opportunity off the left post 4:40 into the third. Toews also had an open tip go wide with 36 seconds left.
“We knew they were going to make a push,” Josi said. “With that team they’ve got a lot of skill, but Peks was great again.”
Chicago controlled the action at the start, but Nashville began to pressure Crawford midway through the first.
Nick Spaling shot wide right on a prime opportunity with about 7 1/2 minutes left. Fisher put the Predators in front when he pushed a rebound over Crawford’s left leg for his 17th goal at 15:33.
Nashville used a big slap shot by Weber to open a 2-0 lead with 69 seconds left in the first. Crawford stopped the drive by the big defenceman, but Hornqvist swept in the rebound for his 13th.
Crawford hopped up and slammed his stick down as the Predators celebrated Hornqvist’s first goal since March 4.
“Tough to watch the last part of the first period,” Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. “I thought that was as bad as we’ve probably played for any stretch all year.”
The two-goal deficit seemed to wake up the Blackhawks for a bit. Toews stole the puck from Josi and passed it to Kris Versteeg, who passed it back to the captain for his 26th goal with 14 seconds remaining.
Chicago carried the momentum into the second, but Rinne was there each time. He used his left pad to deny Patrick Sharp on a 1-on-1 opportunity, and he got some help from teammates when the Blackhawks had the puck in front during a power play at the end of the period.
Crawford also used his glove to grab Craig Smith’s shot with 5:46 left in the second.
NOTES: Blackhawks F Marian Hossa (upper body) participated in the morning skate and is hoping to return Sunday at home against Detroit or Tuesday at Philadelphia. He has missed five games. … Predators F Viktor Stalberg received a warm ovation when he was shown on the video board in the first period for helping Chicago win the Stanley Cup last season.
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap