The Nashville Predators are like your in-laws -- you haven’t seen them since Christmas, you haven’t thought much about them, and you’ve forgotten how annoying they can be.
Then they show up Friday night at the United Center, a night that started out like New Year’s Eve, and they kill the party quicker than a vat of bad egg nog. As noisy as it was before this year’s Stanley Cup playoff opener, it was that quiet in the Blackhawks’ locker room after a 4-1 loss to the Predators, whose next post-season road victory will be the second in their history.
In a week of NHL upsets, the Blackhawks were frustrated, but not shocked, which is somewhat encouraging. If the Blackhawks expected anything different from a Nashville team that is notoriously aggravating to compete against, they would have been delusional and ill-prepared. As it was, the Blackhawks were merely not themselves; although to assume they can look at film Saturday and dictate the pace in Game Two Sunday night might be a stretch.
This series is not going to be easy to win and it probably will not be fun to play. For Chicago audiences, used to tape-to-tape passes and pretty patterns by their heroes, it might not be fun to watch, either.
The Blackhawks scored by crashing the net midway in the second period but were otherwise skunked by Pekka Rinne, a frugal Finn. His countryman, Antti Niemi, yielded the lead on a one-hopper by J.P. Dumont early in the third. Ryan Theriot, among several Cubs in the gathering, might have had it, but the freaky goal was a harbinger of future shock. Dumont clicked again on a turnover by Troy Brouwer at 10:37 of the third to put the Predators up 2-1, and then the Blackhawks engaged in their desperation drill, somewhat belatedly.
The Blackhawks, unlike perhaps some of their fans, did not lapse into panic mode. If the pregame bells and whistles are supposed to be worth a goal to the Blackhawks, well, that’s all they got. It is unlikely Nashville will give them more ice to free-wheel Sunday, even if the ice is better. You wouldn’t quite put the Predators in a class with the New Jersey Devils when it comes to neutralizing superior offenses through numbing them, but they're close.
Barry Trotz, the Nashville coach, bears a slight facial resemblance to Mike Keenan, the huge difference between the two being that Trotz has had only one NHL job and the Nashville job is one of the few that Keenan has not held. The Predators have been bastions of stability since becoming an expansion franchise in 1998. Trotz has been their only coach, and David Poile their only general manager. Do you realize how many general managers and coaches the Blackhawks have employed during that stretch? How are you fixed for time? I could start listing them, but I don’t want you to miss Game Two of this series.
“And that one,” said Blackhawks’ coach Joel Quenneville, sternly, “will be tougher than this one.”