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Predators top Blackhawks in Central showdown

by Robby Stanley

NASHVILLE -- Nashville Predators forward James Neal was expected to be an offensive difference-maker coming into this season. He was able to live up to expectations Thursday, scoring his fifth career hat trick in a 3-2 win against the Chicago Blackhawks at Bridgestone Arena.

“It was a big game tonight,” Neal said. “We didn’t like the way we ended it against Chicago in their barn (a 2-1 Blackhawks overtime win Saturday) and obviously a little redemption tonight. I think every guy played hard.”

Neal scored a goal in each period to get the natural hat trick. The Predators are 5-0-2 and remain in first place in the Central Division. The Blackhawks (4-1-1) lost for the first time in regulation.

“Coming into a new team and everything, you want to do so well. You’ve just got to wait for your chances, and I think everything kind of fell into place tonight,” Neal said.

Ben Smith gave the Blackhawks a 1-0 lead at 12:21 of the first period. The Blackhawks survived a flurry of chances from the Predators on the previous shift, and then Smith scored on a backhand right in front of Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne.

“There were times that we mentioned in the locker room that we were playing really well. We were generating a lot; we were working for our chances down low,” Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. “I think our first goal showed the type of goal we want to score, especially against a team like that.”

Neal tied the game 1-1 with 47.8 seconds remaining in the period. He received a pass from defenseman Seth Jones and put a wrist shot past Chicago goaltender Antti Raanta. Nashville forward Mike Ribeiro picked up an assist to extend his point streak to five games.

“[Neal] had a terrific game,” Predators coach Peter Laviolette said. “They were big goals at the right time too. We thought we played a heck of a first period and we could’ve went into the dressing room down 1-0. That was good to get us going.”

The Blackhawks put heavy pressure on Rinne during a power-play opportunity midway through the second period. They were unable to score despite possessing the puck for most of the two minutes.

Nashville made Chicago pay soon after the power play expired.

“It’s huge anytime you kill a penalty like that,” Predators defenseman Shea Weber said. “You’re out there for a long time. It’s a gutsy effort. Obviously, [Rinne] made some good saves, and guys were blocking shots. That helped as well.”

Neal scored his second goal with 3:48 remaining in the second when he took a slap shot from the faceoff circle. Predators forward Filip Forsberg was able to get the puck to Neal for his fifth assist.

“Our line’s been playing really well. We’ve been getting lots of chances,” Neal said. “[Ribeiro’s] been great. [Forsberg] has been shooting the puck a lot and going to the net, so our chemistry is coming. I think that showed tonight.”

Neal scored his third goal 1:52 into the third period. He was planted by the net and put in the rebound of a shot by defenseman Ryan Ellis.

Chicago forward Andrew Shaw made it 3-2 at 12:36 of the third. The puck went off the boards, and Nashville seemed to think it went out of play. Shaw capitalized and swatted his rebound out of midair past Rinne.

“I liked the last 20 (minutes). It was our best (period) by a mile,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “We got out of that first period 1-1, 1-0 with that late goal. I didn’t like the goals we gave up in that they were preventable. They came at us hard and they get their turn in this building, but you get down by two and you put yourself in a tough spot.”

Nashville was able to hold off Chicago’s late push to secure the win. The Predators are the only team in the NHL that does not have a regulation loss this season.

“It started right from Day One of camp and how hard we’ve worked,” Neal said. “A lot of changes here, a lot of new guys, a new coaching staff. We came in with the mindset that we wanted to be a relentless and tough hockey team to play against, and we’ve done just that.

“The biggest thing for us is we don’t feel like we’ve played our best games yet. We’re going to continue to get better and continue to work, and I think you’ve just seen the first little bit of the Predators.”

Neal has five goals in the past four games after not having any in three games to start the season. This was Neal's first multipoint game for the Predators.

Chicago will travel to play the St. Louis Blues on Saturday, and Nashville will host the Pittsburgh Penguins Saturday before heading out on a six-game road trip.

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