If you don’t get a chance to watch the Nashville Predators much, you may not think you’re missing a lot. But in reality, you’re missing textbook team hockey that typically results in the sum being a lot more than the addition of its parts.
It starts with solid goaltending, and Pekka Rinne has to be the most unheralded young stopper in the league, includes a huge helping of discipline, the Predators are the least-penalized team in the league, and a modest sprinkling of offense. That was the case in Nashville’s Western Conference quarterfinal opener as they beat the heavily favored Chicago Blackhawks 4-1.
The Predators go into every season on a shoestring budget and predictions of mostly hopelessness from hockey prognosticators. But with coach Barry Trotz running a tight ship and just enough of the right ingredients night after night, Nashville has made the playoffs five of the past six seasons.
Against Chicago Friday, the Predators started slowly and relied on Rinne to keep the team in the game through 40 minutes, trailing 1-0. Then it was former Hawk J-P Dumont scoring on a backhand floater 92 seconds into the third and connecting for the winner in the final five minutes that resulted in Nashville earning a methodical road victory. Two empty-net goals made the score look one-sided. It shouldn’t come as a surprise the Preds had the fifth best road record in the league this season.
Nashville had just two 20 goal-scorers this season (Patrik Hornqvist had 30), compared to six 20-tally men for the Hawks. Yet Chicago couldn’t capitalize on its early chances. Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Kris Versteeg were the most opportunistic Hawks, but it was Rinne and the highly regarded Nashville defense led by Shea Weber, Ryan Suter and Dan Hamhuis that limited Chicago’s chances to one shot at a time.
On many teams, it’s easy to lose track of the third defensive pair, but Nashville’s Cody Franson and Kevin Klein, along with Francis Bouillon, gives the Predators perhaps the best 1-to-6 defense in the league.
Viewers watching the video highlights from Game 1 will roll their eyes and say ‘I knew it,’ when they watch Antti Niemi whiff on Dumont’s fluttering backhander that got Nashville on the board in the third period.
Truth is, it was a very tricky shot that, yes, he should have stopped. But Niemi was solid when he needed to be, holding Nashville off the board in the first two periods and later made some key saves when the score was tied.
Niemi made the initial stop on David Legwand that led to Dumont scoring the winner on the rebound, but it was Chicago winger Troy Brouwer who turned the puck over at the blueline before clearing the zone. Rest assured, the 26-year-old Finn will be back between the pipes for Game 2. He has earned a long leash after a solid stretch run and switching to inconsistent Cristobal Huet would smack of desperation.
Former head of officiating Stephen Walkom made an absolutely horrible slashing call on Nashville’s Franson in the second period that became laughable when viewing the replay.
Battling for a loose puck, Versteeg two-hand slashed Franson stick resulting in Versteeg’s stick snapping in half. Walkom must have seen it in reverse and when he saw Versteeg skate to the bench for another stick, blew his whistle and sent an incredulous Franson to the penalty box.
What made it funny was when Versteeg threw his arms up in the air after he heard the whistle, naturally thinking he was getting the penalty. When he saw the call go the other way, he looked at Toews on the bench, like, ‘Holy cow, what a break.’
On the ensuing power play, Versteeg had the best chance, deking Rinne only to have Nashville’s Joel Ward hook him in the hands before he could get a shot off.
Walkom must have missed that one as an even-up call.
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Brian Costello is The Hockey News’s senior special editions editor and a regular contributor to THN.com. You can find his blog each weekend.
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