Behind forward James Neal’s natural hat trick, the Nashville Predators took down the Chicago Blackhawks 3-2 on Thursday.
The only two teams left in the NHL without a regulation loss when the night began, the Preds and Hawks squared off in Music City in a battle for first place in the Central Division. First line offensive production, featuring Neal’s trifecta of goals and a five-game point streak for Mike Ribeiro, made sure Nashville was the club to preserve its top-spot status.
“It felt great, our line has been playing really well and we’ve been getting a lot of chances,” Neal said. “Ribeiro has been solid and [Filip] Forsberg has been shooting and going to the net, so our chemistry is coming and I think that showed tonight. We had a mindset of putting pucks at the goalie tonight and then recovering it for second chances.”
On June 28, Predators General Manager David
Poile sent two Nashville forwards to Pittsburgh in exchange for a reputable goal-scorer in the form of Neal. Four months later, nearly to the day, the winger rewarded his GM with a hat trick, including the game-winning goal against the Preds rival Blackhawks - the first major return on Poile’s investment.
“It’s nice to see a sniper like that work; he has one of the best shots in the league, clearly,” Preds netminder Pekka Rinne said. “He used his shot tonight. Beautiful goals, all of them. It was huge game by him individually.”
“Those were big goals at the right time too,” Nashville Head Coach Peter Laviolette said. “We thought we played a heck of a first period and [Neal] kept us from going into the dressing room down 1-0. That was a big goal to get us going and the other ones were timely too. [...] Every time the puck leaves his stick, it has a chance of going in. Tonight was just one of those nights for him.”
The Blackhawks Ben Smith scored less than eight minutes into the game to give Chicago a 1-0 lead and for the fifth time in seven contests, the Preds were forced to try and comeback after giving up the first goal. Seven minutes after Smith’s tally, Neal started on his run of three-straight goals.
“When Neal is on fire, it’s just as simple as get the puck to him and he’ll finish it out for you,” Neal’s linemate Forsberg said. “I’ve just been trying to work hard each day and try to keep up with Ribeiro and him.”
Forsberg matched Ribeiro’s assist to Neal in the first period with one of his own in the middle frame and then collected another on Neal’s rebound tally at 1:52 of the third. The first hat trick at Bridgestone Arena since January 1, 2012, pushed the Preds to 5-0-2 in 2014-15, their best start to a campaign in four years.
“It is early, and we realize that, but it’s still pretty special,” Forsberg said of the team’s hot start. “Everyone is working hard for each other and we have a really good team in here. I think that’s been the biggest thing for us. We’ve just got to keep this rock rolling here.”
“I’ll give them credit,” Blackhawks Captain Jonathan Toews said. “It’s a team we have to respect and be ready for every time we play them, but it’s early in the season too. We know every division game is important, it doesn’t matter who we play.”
Laviolette said after the victory that starting more than a month ago he’s seen the hard work put in by his team since the start of training camp and that he isn’t surprised by the Preds early success. The bench boss also explained he knows his club can be even better.
Rinne, who made 32 saves against the Hawks for his fifth win of the season, agrees.
“You play for your teammates and the logo you have on the front of your jersey. But at the same time you want to prove [others wrong] and show what you can do,” Rinne said. “So far I think we are on the right track. We’re not going to be too happy, we’re going to focus on our job and keep going [...] we know we can be even better.”
Nashville plays their final home game for the next two weeks on Saturday against the Pittsburgh Penguins before heading out on a season-long, six-game road trip beginning Wednesday.