CHICAGO – Just when you thought things couldn't get much tighter in the Central Division, the Nashville Predators found a way to turn the screw one more notch.
Despite beating the Columbus Blue Jackets just 24 hours earlier and facing the more rested Chicago Blackhawks on the road, the Preds showed up on Tuesday night at the United Center and simply did what they do best to earn a 3-1 victory.
They played solid defense, got a 24-save performance by star goalie Pekka Rinne and pulled even with the Hawks and St. Louis Blues in the division with the two standings points earned. Nashville and Chicago are tied with 64 points behind St. Louis (65) and first-place Detroit (67).
"It's unbelievable," said Rinne, who won his ninth start in a row. "It's almost like the four best teams in the NHL playing in the same division. It's crazy. I've never experienced that before, but it shows how good of a division we have. Any time you play a division game, it's even bigger than those two points. You really focus on those games. At the same time, you can't focus too much on the standings."
Chicago (29-15-6) played without two of its top stars, captain Jonathan Toews (upper body) and Patrick Sharp, and started five rookie forwards. That meant the Hawks were missing a combined 47 goals and 90 points from their normal lineup – not to mention Toews' League-best 61.1 percent faceoff win rate.
Nashville, however, didn't care who was in or out of Chicago's lineup. The Preds aim to do the same thing in just about every game – build a lead and suck the life out of games with great defense – and did it in this game quite effectively.
Rookie center Craig Smith and veteran center Mike Fisher both potted goals in the first period to give the Preds an early 2-0 lead and Rinne did the rest along with an outstanding group of defensemen in front of him. Colin Wilson added an empty-net goal with just 13 seconds left to seal it.
"It's huge," Nashville coach Barry Trotz said. "It makes us 11-2-2 in the Central Division, which is good. We're a team that's going to get better. We're a young team that's going to get better. There's a lot of good things happening with our team. There's something special developing. Goaltending is not an issue with our team, we've got two of the best young defensemen on the planet right now and we got some developing forwards that give us a lot of depth."
Both of Nashville's goals in the first were also sparked by Blackhawks turnovers in their own end of the rink, which didn't help matters for the hosts.
Smith's goal, his 11th of the season, came off a turnover deep in the Chicago end caused by Matt Halischuk and Corey Crawford couldn't stop the ensuing wrister from the Predators' rookie center that banged in off the right post to give Nashville a 1-0 lead.
Almost six minutes later, another turnover -- this one just behind the Hawks net by defenseman Nick Leddy – led to Patric Hornqvist kicking the puck to Fisher in low slot for another wrister that beat Crawford.
"He made a great play," Fisher said of Hornqvist. "It was just a battle in the corner and he made a great pass with his feet. It was a beauty play."
It was also something the Hawks knew they could ill afford to do.
"We had a couple of breakdowns that cost us goals and it's tough playing catch up against these guys," Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith said. "We've done some good things, but we lost two games [in a row] against Nashville. We weren't happy with the way things went in Nashville [on Saturday] and wanted to get a win tonight. We got behind early and unfortunately, you can't get behind against these guys."
Chicago did have a couple of scoring opportunities in the first, but they were turned away by Rinne – including a nice poke check to stop a rush through the slot by Viktor Stalberg about seven minutes into the game. The Hawks' offensive struggles without Toews and Sharp, however, were quite noticeable.
Their puck-possession game lagged and they never really established an offensive rhythm until the third.
Neither team scored in the second, but Nashville outshot Chicago by three and never really got tested – with Rinne stopping all seven shots he saw. Rinne was also sharp to start the third, after Hawks coach Joel Quenneville jumbled his forward lines looking for a spark.
It seemed to work, but Rinne was up to the task on shots in the first couple of minutes by Bolland and Ben Smith. Bolland finally got to Rinne at 7:20 of the third on a power-play goal that cut it to 2-1, after Fisher was sent to the penalty box for tripping. Marian Hossa and Leddy picked up assists and the marker brought the Madhouse on Madison back to life for the remaining 12:40 of regulation.
The Hawks tried to pour on even more offense during another power play shortly after Bolland's goal, this one caused by Martin Erat's high stick, but the Preds defense blocked two shots and the Hawks missed the net on four others.
Chicago also got another late power-play when Shea Weber was called for elbowing with 4:43 left in the game. This time, Rinne and Nashville's penalty killers thwarted it to preserve the slim lead and Chicago was then called for too many men on the ice to help seal a big victory for the visitors.
It was a similar situation to the scenario that unfolded in Game 5 of the memorable first-round playoff series between these teams in 2010 – when Chicago scored an unlikely goal with seconds remaining in regulation and its own net vacated during a Nashville power play.
The same thing happened on Tuesday, but instead of the Hawks tying it and winning in overtime the Preds finished it off to create more chaos in their own division.
"We don't talk about it at all, but we've learned from that series and it helped us get by Anaheim last year," Trotz said. "That's why it's called 'growing pains,' you know? They hurt sometimes. We learned a big lesson. You can't go back in time. You can just go forward. This group's a lot different and a lot more mature for it."