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Predators return home, blow out Blackhawks

by John Manasso

NASHVILLE -- As evidenced by his play at the IIHF World Championship last spring, Craig Smith can be a very productive player when he's at the top of his game.

Smith totaled 14 points in 10 games for the United States in that tournament, including five in a quarterfinal win against Russia.

In the NHL, Smith has proved maddeningly streaky, capable of lengthy unproductive stretches. With his Nashville Predators struggling to score, Smith ranked among the team's least productive players, with one point in his previous eight games.

On Saturday, he helped his line and his team break out with a vengeance, scoring a goal and adding two assists in a 7-2 win against the Chicago Blackhawks at Bridgestone Arena.

The win, which came in the Predators' first home game following a seven-game, 17-day road trip, snapped Nashville's four-game losing streak.

Each member of Smith's line -- he played right wing with Nick Spaling on the left and Matt Cullen at center -- scored even-strength goals.

"I think Craig was really skating," Spaling said. "He was creating a lot of pressure and Cully was making plays. It was just a good night that way. It was just a sustaining pressure."

Nashville coach Barry Trotz agreed, also acknowledging Smith's speed, perhaps his greatest asset.

"I thought Smitty was really, really moving his legs tonight," Trotz said. "He stayed on pucks and was really hard to handle. He was creating things."

Smith appeared visibly relieved to have helped Nashville pick up the win and end the team's arid goal-scoring stretch. Entering the game, Nashville had lost four straight by a combined score of 17-2.

"Yes, it felt great," Smith said. "It's been a long time. It's been a tough couple of games. I thought we did a great job sticking with it."

Chicago suffered its first regulation loss in three weeks -- and also by far its worst defeat of the season -- and had a four-game winning streak snapped. The Blackhawks had gone 7-0-1 in their previous eight and had not suffered a regulation loss since Oct. 26, a 5-3 win for the Minnesota Wild.

The Blackhawks, who have a home game Sunday against the San Jose Sharks before embarking on a seven-game, 11-day road trip of their own, suffered a couple of key injuries Saturday.

Right wing Marian Hossa participated in warm-ups but decided afterward that he could not play with a lower-body injury. Chicago coach Joel Quenneville appeared to leave the door open to Hossa's playing on Sunday, saying he was day-to-day.

Goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, who suffered a lower-body injury and had to leave the game with 4:27 left in the first period, seems a different situation.

"We'll know more tomorrow, but it could be a bit," Quenneville said.

Khabibulin, who had not played since allowing four goals on 22 shots in 31 minutes against the Ottawa Senators on Oct. 29, injured himself as he went into his butterfly when Nashville's Shea Weber shot wide from the point. Khabibulin fell to the ice and lay prone, later making a stop on Nashville's Patric Hornqvist.

With the puck in the corner, the officials immediately stopped play, and Blackhawks medical staff attended to Khabibulin, who was hunched over as he skated off the ice.

Khabibulin allowed two goals on eight shots, but it was Corey Crawford who took the loss after allowing five goals on 22 shots.

While Nashville has had trouble scoring, for the second straight game, the Predators notched the game's first goal. At 7:28 of the first period, Cullen ended a run of 10 games without a point by diving to tip in a rebound of Smith's slap shot off a 3-on-2 rush.

Less than a minute later, the same line connected again to put Nashville ahead 2-0 when Spaling ripped a wrist shot from the right faceoff circle over Khabibulin's catching glove at 8:25.

Nashville got its first goal past Crawford at 9:02 of the second period on the power play to take a 3-0 lead. Roman Josi scorched a slap shot from the left side that Patric Hornqvist deflected to beat Crawford high to the blocker side. The goal was Hornqvist's team-leading sixth.

Weber picked up an assist on Hornqvist's goal, earning his 300th NHL point in the process. Brandon Bollig was in the penalty box for a delay of game penalty that he received for shooting the puck over the glass behind the Predators goal from inside his own blue line - about 125 feet away.

Smith scored his fourth goal at 18:18 of the second after Cullen intercepted a pass by Marcus Kruger in Chicago's zone. Cullen sent the puck low to Smith, who was all alone and roofed a backhander.

Chicago cut the score to 4-1 just 26 seconds later when Patrick Kane banked the puck off the right-wing boards and skated in alone. His low wrist shot evaded Nashville rookie goalie Marek Mazanec, who made 39 saves to earn his first NHL victory.

In the third period, Brandon Pirri stuffed home a rebound of Brent Seabrook's shot four seconds after a penalty to Nashville's David Legwand had expired. The goal at 6:14 cut the Predators' lead to 4-2.

Nashville answered almost immediately with a 2-on-1 strike. Viktor Stalberg, playing his first game against his former team, swatted in a high backhander from Gabriel Bourque 15 seconds later.

"Obviously, it was exciting for me," Stalberg said. "I was there for a few years, and I have some good friends on that team. It feels good to beat them in our first game (as opponents)."

At 12:19, Mike Fisher swiped in a feed from Hornqvist, who had stripped a Chicago player of the puck along the boards, to make it 6-2.

Weber slapped in a power-play goal, his fifth of the season, at 14:07 for the final goal

Despite all the offensive fireworks for Nashville, Mazanec's contribution proved critical. Trotz elected to start him for the second time in two nights, even though Carter Hutton had played several years with the Blackhawks organization until Nashville signed him in July.

Mazanec, playing his first game in Bridgestone Arena, said he was surprised by Trotz's decision.

"Yeah, I was," he said. "The game before was not really good. I think Hutton was going to play this game. I appreciate that I get a chance and that coach trust in me. It's really important for me."

With No. 1 goalie Pekka Rinne out indefinitely with an infection in his hip, the Predators have needed a steadying force in goal. Trotz said he thought the offense Saturday was a result of solid defense. If Mazanec can do the job, maybe he could be the lift the Predators need.

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