The most important week of Predators hockey in recent memory is off to a smashing start.
Calle Jarnkrok and Luke Kunin both posted a goal and an assist, and Nashville began their three-game set with Chicago by defeating the Blackhawks by a 5-2 final on Monday night at Bridgestone Arena. The result gives the Preds six wins in as many tries against the Hawks this season, and more importantly, puts them four points ahead of Chicago for the fourth and final playoff spot in the Central Division.
Although the postseason is still weeks away, Predators players have described adopting a playoff mentality over the past month, considering their place in the standings and how tight the race continues to be. That mindset, coupled with an increased capacity of 33 percent for Preds fans inside Bridgestone Arena on Monday night, led to an environment that had yet to be felt in 2021 - until now.
Video: Hynes praises fans, Preds' diligence in 5-2 victory
"It's the best environment that we've played in this year," Preds Head Coach John Hynes said. "I'm really thankful, and I think we as a group are really thankful for the fans. It's great to see them back in the building, as many fans as we've had in the building, and it's nice to see the players reward them with a nice win tonight and playing hard. We're looking forward to going to Chicago [for two games] and trying to do a good job there, and then we've got another two game set coming up [at home next week], and hopefully the building continues to be the way it is, because it certainly brings energy to our group."
Video: Kunin, Granlund discuss Preds' 5-2 victory over Hawks
"We definitely felt the energy at the rink," Preds forward Mikael Granlund said. "It was awesome to have more fans out there, and you could really hear them, so that was a lot of fun. And as the game went on, I think we had a pretty good start, and then it was a tight game, but the third-period start for us was pretty good. We got the lead, a three-goal lead, so that was it."
Video: CHI@NSH: Duchene deflects Benning's shot for 1-0 lead
Before the game was seven minutes old, Erik Haula - and then Matt Duchene - tipped home a shot past Blackhawks goaltender Kevin Lankinen to give the Preds a 1-0 lead. Alex DeBrincat evened the score on the power play before the period was out, but it didn't take Nashville long to regain the lead in the second stanza.
Fewer than five minutes into the period, Jarnkrok took a feed from Granlund and converted in his 500th career game to score his team-leading 12th goal of the season.
Video: CHI@NSH: Granlund, Jarnkrok combine for goal in 2nd
"He's a really good player, first of all," Granlund said of Jarnkrok. "We've been playing together quite a bit here, so it's a lot of fun to play [with him]. He's a really responsible player, he's a really smart player and there's a lot of trust out there. We can both kind of play off [of each other], and there's someone who's going to be responsible, so that's one thing. Offensively, you just work hard, and we've been getting a couple turnovers and getting some chances from those, so it's been a good stretch and we've just got to keep going."
Fifty-one seconds after Jarnkrok's strike, Mattias Ekholm snapped a shot into the twine on a partial breakaway to give the Preds a two-goal advantage.
Video: CHI@NSH: Ekholm streaks in and scores for 3-1 lead
Chicago cut the lead to within one midway through the period, however, as David Kampf beat Juuse Saros, but Nashville came out for the third and never looked back.
Video: CHI@NSH: Jeannot scores redirection goal for 4-2 lead
Two goals in the first 41 seconds of the final frame - first from Tanner Jeannot at the 23-second mark, and then another from Kunin just 18 seconds after that - chased Lankinen from the net and gave Saros and the Preds more than enough cushion to finish off the night.
Video: CHI@NSH: Kunin finishes Granlund's feed for 5-2 lead
Saros had 30 saves by the time it was over, and the Predators helped their postseason chances a bit more with nine games to go in the regular season.
"We're fighting for a playoff spot, and Chicago is as well, so we've had that mindset for the last 20 or so games," Kunin said. "It's a playoff mindset, we've got to come and do the right things every day and play that way, and if we play to our identity, we're going to give ourselves a good chance of success."
The Preds will seek to continue that prosperity as they head to the Windy City for the final time this season, and while the group is certainly pleased with the way the week has begun, they remain all business as they prepare for the next challenge up north.
"I don't think we were looking too far ahead, just take one game at a time and do our job," Kunin said. "Now, this one's over and we'll get better, learn from it and go out and hopefully do the same the next time."
"We were ready to play, and we got the first one of these three games and that's it," Granlund said. "Off to the next one."
Video: Kunin, Jarnkrok lift Predators past Blackhawks, 5-2
Calle Jarnkrok appeared in his 500th career game - all with Nashville. Jarnkrok is the 13th player in franchise history to skate in 500 games (Legwand, Weber, Erat, Josi, Smith, Hamhuis, Ekholm, Timonen, Ellis, Suter, Johnson and Wilson).
Matt Duchene's goal was his first since Feb. 11. He returned to the lineup Saturday after missing 22 games due to injury.
Erik Haula's helper on Duchene's goal was his 100th career assist.
Nashville's three-game series with the Blackhawks now shifts to Chicago for a pair at the United Center on Wednesday and Friday.