CHICAGO – This time, Antti Niemi was razor-sharp and the Chicago Blackhawks kept the pedal to the metal for three full periods.
The result was exactly what the Hawks needed, a series-tying 2-0 win over Nashville on Sunday night in Game 2 of this Western Conference Quarterfinal series. Had they headed to Tennessee for Game 3 on Tuesday down two games to none, the Hawks would have found themselves in a hole few teams have escaped.
Instead, the series is all even and Chicago has stolen back some of the momentum the Predators gained by winning the opener.
"Everyone was pumped up and wanted to see a win tonight," said Hawks center Dave Bolland, whose power-play goal in the second gave Chicago a 1-0 lead. "It was a huge game for us and huge to tie it up 1-1."
Pleasing a sellout crowd of 22,158 at the United Center, the Hawks also followed the lead of every other favored team that lost its opener by winning the second game – all eight first-round series are tied 1-1, the first time that's happened since the best-of-7 format was adopted for the opening round in 1987.
"Pretty amazing stat with all eight series going split," Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "Going forward we have to play that way from start to finish. We got to be patient. You got to play with energy and you got play with a purpose."
Patrick Kane scored early in the third put Chicago up 2-0 and placed the onus on the defensive-minded Predators to open up and play catch-up for the last 15 minutes -- not exactly their strong suit.
"You get that second goal and everyone's just a little looser and you play with more confidence," said Kane, whose goal was his 11th in 19 playoff games. "We came out with a couple of bad shifts (in the third), but we turned it around and played well the rest of the game."
Rather than sitting back, the Hawks kept the pressure on Nashville, with Niemi making 11 of his 23 saves in the final period for his first playoff shutout. Niemi was asked to compare it with a regular-season shutout – he had seven in his rookie season.
"It feels even better," he said.
Nashville played without center Patric Hornqvist (upper body injury), who participated in the team's morning skate. Hornqvist, who tied for the team lead in points this season (51), played in Game 1 after sitting out that day's skate. He was hit hard by Marian Hossa in the second period of the first game and didn't play much in the third. Nashville coach Barry Trotz classified his injury as "nagging" and didn't say whether the hit by Hossa re-aggravated it.
The Predators missed Hornqvist's presence in front of the net; they managed only 12 shots in the first two periods and struggled to get much of an attack going for most of the night.
"No one really filled his role," Trotz said. "I thought maybe Joel Ward did a little bit, but other than that we didn't have enough. I thought their goaltender saw too many pucks. We made it easy on him tonight."
Trotz said Hornqvist "looks promising" to return for Game 3.
The Hawks' defense and Niemi were also big factors in Nashville's struggles. The Predators' best scoring chance in the first two periods on Sunday came early in the second, but Niemi stuffed it by sprawling to make a pad save on Dustin Boyd from point-blank range.
"It was off a bad rebound, but I'm usually able to get my pad to the post," Niemi said. "It was still 0-0, so that was real big for our team."
As they did in the first game, the Hawks struck first. Bolland's goal came a power play 8:44 into the second when he backhanded a pass from Jonathan Toews into an open net past the sprawling Pekka Rinne. The crowd roared back to life. They erupted again when Kane, who assisted on Bolland's goal, doubled the lead 4:18 into the third.
Nashville uncharacteristically gave Chicago seven power-play chances.
"In all these series, (power play) goals is where you have to capitalize," Bolland said. "We have to make sure we're good at it, because those things can get us through sometimes."
Rinne finished with 31 saves, as the Hawks fulfilled their promise to get more shots on goal and more traffic in front of the 6-foot-5 goaltender. Much like Game 1, the Hawks threw a lot of shots at Rinne early with no success. Chicago outshot Nashville 13-5 in the first period and most of the action stayed in the Predators' end, but they still couldn't score.
The biggest problem?
Literally, it was Rinne – who was almost always up to the task. Even when he wasn't, he was bailed out by good fortune.
The Hawks' best early scoring chances were negated by luck. Hossa's perfectly-threaded pass to Toews in the first set up a one-timer that beat Rinne but hit the crossbar. Just 40 seconds later Bolland's apparent goal was waived off because the play was whistled dead a second earlier. Kane directed the puck to the goal from the corner, where Rinne collected it between his pads to get the whistle just before Bolland poked it past him.
Bolland admitted to feeling a little snake-bitten, but Toews said the key was not to get down because of bad luck.
"We had quite a few chances like that one that hit the bar in the first period, but you can't let that type of thing get to you," he said. "You've just got to keep working and make something happen."
Shift of the game: Pouncing on a turnover at the Hawks’ blue line, Patrick Kane took a pass from Patrick Sharp, skated in on Pekka Rinne and fired a shot past the Predators’ goalie for a 2-0 lead 4:18 into the third period. Up to that point, this game mirrored Game 1, in which Chicago dominated the first two periods but Nashville stayed close – but this time, Kane’s goal helped prevent a comeback.