The Nashville Predators were unable to overcome a poor first period Wednesday night, falling to the Chicago Blackhawks 4-3 at the United Center. Nashville went down 4-1 in the final minute of the opening period, but could not net the equalizer despite scoring once in the second and once early in the third to draw within one. Predators captain Greg Johnson posted a goal and an assist in the loss, which was the second in a row for Nashville and moves the team's overall record to 43-25-8.
Goaltender Pekka Rinne, who replaced starter Chris Mason for the final 3:08 of the first period, gave up one goal on two shots. That goal, scored by Rene Bourque on a backhander, turned out to be the game-winner and Rinne was saddled with the loss in his second NHL appearance. Mason returned to the game at the start of the second period and stopped 23 of the 26 shots he faced for the game.
Defensemen Dan Hamhuis and Mark Eaton also scored for the Predators, who travel to St. Louis Thursday night to face the Blues in the second half of back-to-back games.
Chicago took a 1-0 lead 8:35 into the first, when Matthew Barnaby found defenseman Duncan Keith creeping into the wide-open slot area and fed him for a one-timer that beat Mason. Less than six minutes later, the Predators tied it at 1-1. As a Nashville penalty was expiring, Johnson pressured the puck up the right wall of his own zone and intercepted an attempted chip from Patrick Sharp to Jim Vandermeer at the point. That sent Johnson in alone on a breakaway, and as he skated between the face-off circles in the Blackhawks' zone he fired a shot to the right side of the net that cleanly beat goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin at 13:16.
The Predators, who displayed little intensity in the opening 20 minutes, gave up three goals in a four-minute span to dig themselves into a deep hole before the first intermission. Patrick Sharp kept the puck on a two-on-one and scored on Mason with a shot through the five-hole at 15:06. Mark Bell's bid from the left circle at 16:52 found its way through traffic and into the Nashville net, prompting head coach Barry Trotz to pull Mason in favor of Rinne. The 3-1 lead became 4-1 when Bourque came off the end boards behind the Predators net, spun around defenseman Kimmo Timonen and backhanded the puck past Rinne from the left side of the net at 19:03. For the period, the Predators were outshot 12-9 by Chicago.
Forward Darcy Hordichuk tried to inject some passion into his club when he made a solid hit in the opening seconds of the second period then dropped the gloves when engaged by Barnaby. The strategy paid off, as the Predators went on to draw a hooking penalty against Bell at 1:54, then cut the deficit to two on the resulting power play. Winger Martin Erat brought the puck off the right wall in the offensive zone and curled high inside the blue line to the center of the ice. His straight-on shot deflected off a nearby defender and veered directly toward Hamhuis, down low and alone to the left of the Chicago net. Hamhuis quickly got a shot off and ended up banking the puck off the back of Khabibulin and into the net at 3:25 for his second goal in as many games.
Additional chances came in flurries for Nashville during the second period, while Mason kept his team within two by making significant saves against Sharp on a close chance and Brandon Bochenski on a partial breakaway.
After outshooting the Blackhawks 10-8 in the second period, the Predators showed urgency from the drop of the puck in the third. Johnson won the opening draw and helped get the puck deep into Chicago's zone. Hordichuk slid the puck from the left corner to Johnson behind the Blackhawks' net, where Nashville's captain faked emerging to the right then the left before ultimately going left and backhanding a pass to Eaton. The stay-at-home defenseman had encroached from his point position to the right hash marks when he one-timed Johnson's pass into the net. The goal, Eaton's second on the year, made it 4-3 just :25 into the third.
Mason was forced to make another big stop at the 1:40 mark, as a long shot by Keith went wide right but rebounded off the end boards to Kyle Calder near the right post. Mason extended his leg, pushing his skate right up against the post to stymie Calder's jam attempt. A series of Predators penalties put Mason to the test as well, and he responded by shutting the door on chances by Bourque and Martin Lapointe. Nashville benefited from a little luck as well, as Bourque and Mark Cullen also fired shots wide of the target in the second--Cullen's miss came during a brief five-on-three advantage--to allow the visitors to remain only one goal away from tying the game.
At the other end, David Legwand whiffed on a choice one-timer during the Predators' fourth power-play. Later, Erat manufactured scoring opportunities by twice throwing the puck on net, but shortly after losing the puck in his skates, Khabibulin located and covered it in the crease before Legwand or Hamhuis could capitalize.
A holding penalty to Michal Barinka at 17:33 put the Predators on the power play, and at 18:16 Trotz pulled Mason in favor of an extra skater. The six-on-four advantage was short-lived, however, as Scott Hartnell was whistled for tripping at 18:36. Mason returned to begin four-on-four play then left the ice again around the 19:20 mark. Timonen's hooking violation to prevent an empty net score with less than 30 seconds remaining put Nashville down five men to three to close out the game.
As in the second period, the Predators outshot the Blackhawks in the third by a 10-8 margin. Mason stopped all 16 shots he faced in the final 40 minutes, while Nashville's two goals on 20 shots during that span took him off the hook for the loss.
Notes: The Predators are 5-2-0 against Chicago this season, with both losses coming at the United Center in the team's last two meetings... Greg Johnson scored a goal and an assist, posting his second multi-point performance of the season... Dan Hamhuis scored a goal and now has a power-play tally in each of his last two games and three goals in his last five. He is one goal away from tying his career high of seven, set in his rookie season of 2003-04... Eaton scored a goal, his second of the season and third point of 2005-06. He finished the game with a +2 rating... Martin Erat assisted on Hamhuis' goal and now has five points (2g-3a) in his last six games... David Legwand also assisted on Hamhuis' goal and has two assists in his last three games. He logged a season-high 21:54 of ice time in Chicago... Darcy Hordichuk registered his sixth assist of the season on Eaton's goal. Prior to Wednesday's game, the last five of Hordichuk's 12 points had been goals. His first assist since Dec. 27 gives him 13 points on the season (7g-6a)--more than doubling his career point total entering the 2005-06 season (4g-2a=6pts)... Nashville is 19-8-1 against Central Division teams this season... Pekka Rinne is now 1-1 in two career NHL appearances, both against the Blackhawks... The Predators are 24-14 in one-goal games and 21-11-2 when their opponent scores first... Tomas Vokoun, Marek Zidlicky, Jordin Tootoo and Steve Sullivan were injury scratches for the Predators Wednesday. Scott Nichol and Vern Fiddler were scratched as coach's decisions. Brendan Witt served his one-game NHL suspension Wednesday and will be eligible to return to the lineup Thursday in St. Louis... Attendance at the United Center was 10,755.
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