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Preds continue dominance of Hawks in 6-1 win

by Brian Hedger
CHICAGO -- It's a cliché, but it fits for the season series between the Nashville Predators and Chicago Blackhawks.

The more things have changed since the last time they'd met, the more they stayed the same at the end of 60 minutes on Sunday night at the United Center, which was "Eddie Belfour Heritage Night" in Chicago.

It would've taken Belfour at his top form, however, just for the hosts to stay in the game with the Predators -- who beat Chicago 6-1 for the fourth straight time this season and improved to 4-0-1 in the five meetings between the Central Division rivals with one left to play on March 31 at Bridgestone Arena.

"We played a solid, solid game," said Preds goalie Pekka Rinne, who made 24 saves and beat Chicago for the fourth time this season. "The last two games we got back to playing our game and those two games before that, against (Edmonton) and Pittsburgh, those games we got away (from it) a little bit. Our foundation is still a hard-working game. We can't get away from that."

They didn't in this game and it wound up paying big dividends offensively. Matt Halischuk, Andrei Kostitsyn, Patric Hornqvist, Francis Bouillon, Shea Weber and Mike Fisher all scored goals for Nashville (44-24-8), which despite adding some skill through trades and signings is still at its best focusing on shutting teams down first.

"It doesn't matter who we have in the lineup or how many offensive guys we have," Rinne said. "That's still our game. We have to be solid defensively and work hard and keep it simple and the offensive part of the game is going to come. Tonight was a good example. We still have a lot of skill on the team and when we get a scoring chance the guys put the puck in the net."

The Preds, who made several big additions to the roster since the last time they saw the Hawks on Valentine's Day, dominated most of this game. They also used the two points gained to edge ahead of the Detroit Red Wings by one point for second in the Central and fourth in the Western Conference.

They also did it without top-line forward and leading scorer Martin Erat, who was an unexpected scratch with an undisclosed upper-body injury. As it turned out, the Preds' didn't need him offensively because of their strong defensive effort.

"We're doing the right things more often here," Nashville coach Barry Trotz said. "We realize there's a certain way you have to play the game and if you play the game that way, we're going to be in the game every time. We got good efforts from everybody, from the goal on out."

Corey Crawford (11 saves) started his fifth straight game and took the loss for Chicago (42-26-8), which played without injured captain Jonathan Toews (suspected concussion), top defenseman Duncan Keith (suspension), rookie second-line center Marcus Kruger (suspected concussion symptoms), plus defensemen Steve Montador (suspected concussion) and Sami Lepisto (lower body).

The last time the Hawks played the Preds, a 3-2 loss in Nashville on Feb. 14, they had all of those injured regulars except for Montador -- and it still didn't matter. This time, without them, it looked like a lopsided proposition.

"They're playing real good team defense all over the ice, (doing a) good job in the neutral zone," Hawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson said. "(It was) tough for us to get in control in their zone. I just think they were better than us pretty much all over the ice today. Bottom line, they just outworked us. We've been without some key guys before, so I don't think that's an excuse."

Crawford allowed two first-period goals, another in the second and then gave way to backup Ray Emery after Bouillon's long shot from near the boards beat him just 2:00 into the third to give the Preds a 4-0 lead. Viktor Stalberg scored his 25th of the season to make it 4-1 almost three minutes later, but Weber's blast 36 seconds after that made it 5-1 and the Preds cruised from there.

"They're missing a couple of their top players and that's a tough thing to overcome, but I thought they fought hard and we played a good game, as well," said Weber, who assisted on Hornqvist's goal in the second to go with his own marker. "I think we were a little too undisciplined and took too many penalties and fortunately our penalty kill was good and they were off a little bit tonight, but we can't be giving that talented an offense that (many) chances because they'll burn you after awhile."

It's just that, through five meetings thus far, the Hawks' power play has only burned the Preds' penalty kill for one goal in 19 opportunities (5.3 percent) -- including an 0-for-4 showing in this game with no shots on goal.

"(It) seemed like we lost the first faceoff right off the bat cleanly in all those (power-play) situations and all of a sudden we're playing the rush game," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "They defended the entries very well and we didn't have enough tenacity on the retrievals. They work hard. They're a simple team. They're relentless. They're quick. They transition very well. They've got good sticks."

Chicago, which had won five straight and hadn't lost in regulation since March 6, has just six games remaining and only two will be on home ice. The Hawks came into this game feeling good after downing the rival Vancouver Canucks 2-1 in overtime last Wednesday, but just couldn't get to Rinne or through Nashville's stifling defense often enough.

Despite some early Chicago pressure, Halischuk gave the Preds a 1-0 lead just 6:16 into the game after Brandon Yip found him with a pass from behind the net and he ripped a wrister from the slot into the top right corner of the net.

It was Halischuk's 14th goal and exactly the way the Predators wanted to start. Kostitsyn's goal at 15:28 of the first, which deflected off Brent Seabrook's stick and got past Crawford short side high, then made it 2-0 and put Chicago into an even deeper hole.

After the Hawks squandered a pair of power plays in the opening 20 minutes, they looked frustrated heading to the locker room for the first intermission -- especially after a cross-ice pass from Hjalmarsson to Stalberg with time running out looked like it had Rinne beat.

Instead, Stalberg looked torn between shooting or passing and the opportunity fizzled. Chicago actually outshot Nashville in the opening period, 11-8, but the Preds were better at capitalizing on their opportunities -- a recurring theme in the season series.

More of the same in the second led to the Preds taking a commanding 3-0 lead just 5:42 into it on Hornvist's 25th goal to cap a power play created by Dave Bolland's roughing minor. Shea Weber broke Marian Hossa's stick blade off on a point blast, which send the puck humming along the ice toward the net.

Radulov changed its direction with his right skate and puck then deflected off Hornqvist's skate into the net. Chicago, meanwhile, managed to get just six shots against Rinne in the second despite being granted a third man-advantage.

Not having Toews or Keith was quite evident when on the power play, but even they might not have mattered a bunch when the Preds are playing this way.

"Every game is scripted differently, but if you do the right things and you defend well, you're always going to be in the game," Trotz said. "You saw it toward the end, when it got a little loose. You force the other team to chase the game ... and if you just defend well, you're going to get more opportunities. It's hard when you chase the game in this League, because teams defend so well."
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