NASHVILLE -- In their two previous games, the Chicago Blackhawks took leads into the third period and promptly gave them up. On Saturday, they played a Stanley Cup Playoff-type of game -- and this time, they successfully protected a one-goal lead.
Goalie Ray Emery made 20 saves to earn his second shutout and Chicago finished with a 1-0 victory over the Nashville Predators at Bridgestone Arena that dealt another blow to their Central Division rival's postseason chances.
"That's a team that you've really got to play some boring hockey against and just kind of be in good defensive position, take advantage when you get that opportunity," Emery said. "I thought we played that strategy to a tee tonight....
"We were really mindful of not giving them anything."
Chicago coach Joel Quenneville did not want to dwell on the negative of what had happened late in the past few games.
"We just wanted to keep playing the same way," he said. "I thought we played a strong game, a hard game."
Chicago had points in three straight (2-0-1) and four out of five (3-1-1) entering the game. The Blackhawks are starting to take control of the race for the Western Conference's top seed. The win puts them five points up on the Anaheim Ducks, who have played one more game than the Blackhawks.
With the win, Emery improved to 13-1-0 on the season. His lone defeat came in his last start on March 29, as Anaheim defeated him 2-1. Quenneville liked what he saw from his goalie. Nashville pulled goalie Pekka Rinne, who stopped 29 of 30 shots, twice in the last two minutes and pressured Emery for the equalizer. After the first time the Predators pulled Rinne, the big Finn had to go back in the net for a faceoff in his zone.
With Rinne out for the final 90 seconds after Nashville called its timeout, Emery had some anxious moments around his crease as the Predators threw bodies at the net and tried to jam the puck in.
Quenneville said Emery was "rock solid."
"I thought he was in control around the net," he said. "Against that team, there's a lot of scrambles, a lot of loose stuff and they create traffic. I thought he found pucks and froze them and looked very big."
The Blackhawks got on the board by converting a 2-on-1. The Predators got trapped in the offensive zone and Michal Handzus took advantage of a mental mistake by a Nashville forward in front of the Chicago bench as the puck bounded to Handzus. The newly acquired Slovak skated up the right wing and sent a saucer pass to a wide-open Bryan Bickell, who put it in a gaping net at 5:31 of the opening period.
The net was so open because Nashville coach Barry Trotz said defenseman Jon Blum did not do a good job of taking away the pass; it's the defenseman's responsibility in that situation to take away the pass and let the goalie play the shooter. Trotz also was upset with a forward – it appeared to be Bobby Butler – who made the wrong decision when Chicago defenseman Sheldon Brookbank got the puck in the corner and shot it up the right-wing boards.
"Our forward has a responsibility when a puck changes side, he's got to hold the... line and he didn't and he went to the boards and just gave up the two-on-one," Trotz said, "and then I thought we played the 2-on-1 poorly. Our defenseman didn't play the 2-on-1 very well. Give your goalie a chance to make the save. The way we played that, it just left [Rinne] out to dry there."
From there, Quenneville said he thought the key moment of the game was when the Blackhawks were forced to kill a double minor in the third period. With 12:02 left in regulation, Daniel Carcillo high-sticked Nashville's Shea Weber. However, Chicago got as many shots as Nashville did during the four-minute power play – one -- and held the Predators off the board.
The Predators entered having won only one of their previous five (1-2-2). Nashville began Saturday in 12th place in the Western Conference, four points out of the eighth and final spot for the playoffs.
Since trading right wing Martin Erat, one of the team's co-leaders in points when he was dealt to the Washington Capitals on Wednesday, the Predators have struggled to put the puck in the net. In their first game after the trade, they lost 3-1 to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday.
In some ways, they have reverted to the form that hurt their playoff chances from the season's outset. For the first half of the season, the Predators averaged less than two goals per game.
Trotz observed that in two meetings with Chicago this week, the Blackhawks scored three goals and Nashville two, but the Predators lost both, including a 3-2 shootout loss on Monday. But the Predators desperately need points in the standings now.
Trotz also made an oblique reference to the trade of Erat and numerous injuries: to forward Colin Wilson, the team's leading scorer when he got hurt on March 9, and Gabriel Bourque, who has a team-high 11 goals. On Saturday, a new player was added to the injury list: big checking center Paul Gaustad with an upper-body injury that has plagued him throughout the season. Gaustad sat out the game, allowing Chicago's top line of Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Brandon Saad to control the puck at length in Nashville's zone, and Trotz said he would be out for at least the next few games.
"I thought our battle skills were really good, our complete was really good," he said. "We're playing with a few guys out and a few deletions, obviously at the trade deadline, so we're a little thin, but guys gave everything they had and we almost got that thing tied up."
With only nine games left, Nashville is running out of time to earn its eighth playoff berth in nine seasons.
Meanwhile, League-leading Chicago is gearing up. Bickell called Emery "a wall back there."
"He was the best penalty killer in the late period of the game," Bickell said. "They had some tight chances but 'Ray Ray' said no. I think we're happy to get the shutout for him."
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