When fearless forecasts were filed prior to the Stanley Cup playoffs, most prognosticators outside of the Grand Ole' Opry presumed the Blackhawks would turn the Nashville Predators into a sad country song.
You know, lesser team dreams big, then reality strikes, and the underdog disappears, along with the neighbor's dog. The one caveat, as always, would be goaltending. Specifically, could Pekka Rinne, who has given the Blackhawks problems in the past, steal a game? Or two? Or even a series?
Well, he's off to a good start. Rinne beat the Blackhawks Thursday night, 1-0 at the United Center, to provide the visitors a 1-0 advantage in this First Round series. Rinne looked big in the net because he is. He is 6 foot, 5 inches. However, before we place him beside Terry Sawchuk and Ken Dryden on the Mount Rushmore of opposing masked men who have robbed the Blackhawks, let us suggest that Rinne's was not the classic stand-on-your head performance.
The Blackhawks started late, and warmed to the occasion, but didn't exactly throw the kitchen sink at Rinne. Some pots and pans among 29 shots, yes. However, you could count his spectacular saves on both hands and have fingers left over. Which, of course, does not mean he can't reject the Blackhawks again in Game 2 Saturday night and haunt them for two weeks.
Jim Cornelison wore his playoff tuxedo for "The Star-Spangled Banner", towels suitable for waving were draped over all seats, and roars from 22,075 confirmed this was not just another Thursday night. But by the time the Blackhawks treated the occasion as special, they were down a goal against a spry foe in a liberally officiated game. Artem Anisimov, back in the lineup, had a couple excellent looks, the Predators iced the puck three times in the last 20 seconds, and it surely seemed that the Blackhawks might atone for a sluggish takeoff. They did it all winter. But now it is spring, and they bobbled a playoff opener, not a first.
The Blackhawks, a close bunch, were a mite too chummy on the Predators' only goal. You could have thrown a picnic blanket around Nick Schmaltz, Richard Panik and Jonathan Toews as they gathered inside their blue line. Alas, as Schmaltz and Panik collided, Filip Forsberg found ample room to fire a puck that Viktor Arvidsson redirected past Corey Crawford. That unfolded 7:52 into the fray. The Predators nursed it successfully because the Blackhawks didn't press the call button with enough quality chances.
But the Blackhawks are notoriously slow learners in series, and they know the playoff drill to be sure. Start behind the bench with Head Coach Joel Quenneville. Thursday night was his 212th postseason game, 125 of which have been as Chicago's master tactician. Among those are 37 sudden-death overtimes, several of which did not end all that suddenly.
Marian Hossa marked his 202nd playoff game Thursday. Toews was partaking of his 125th, Niklas Hjalmarsson his 125th, Patrick Kane his 124th, Duncan Keith his 123rd and Brent Seabrook his 120th. For a frame of reference, consider this: The only two players to have participated in more playoff games for the Blackhawks are Stan Mikita (155) and Denis Savard (131). Toews and Kane could conceivably pass them before reaching age 30.
Until then, any of the above still active players should feel free to beat Rinne Saturday night.