Predators Rely on Defense, Goaltending & Kunin to Overcome Blackhawks

Alexa, play “Winner” by Jamie Foxx. The Nashville Predators earned a crucial five out of possible six points against their division rival Chicago Blackhawks this past week. Prior to the start of the three-game series, the Predators won all five meetings against the Blackhawks, to the dismay of Chicago fans everywhere.

What exactly is it that makes the Predators so deadly for the Blackhawks? Depending on who you talk to, they may have a different theory. After examining the three-game mini-series that concluded, I came up with my own reasons they were successful this week against Chicago.

Game-Changing Defense 

For the most part Nashville’s defense was able to keep Chicago’s offense at bay, which has been a theme all season. There was that unfortunate seven-minute breakdown on Wednesday night, but overall Hynes’ team was solid in their own end. Explosive Chicago forward Patrick Kane did not score a goal and only registered one assist in each outing.

Ryan Ellis Nashville Predators
Ryan Ellis, Nashville Predators (Photo by Danny Murphy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

There were 16 different Predators players that blocked 52 shots in front of Saros. The usual suspects of Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm blocked shots in all three games. Nick Cousins, Erik Haula and Mikael Granlund also scarified their body to help out their goaltender. Nashville’s defense has always been their strength, and thankfully they were up for the challenge against their rivals.

Phenomenal Goaltending From Juuse Saros

Juuse Saros was in goal for all three contests and faced a total of 92 shots and allowed eight goals. When you examine the seven-minute breakdown on Wednesday, it is hard to solely blame him. Fortunately, his team bounced back and got the win on Friday. Saros made 29 saves and was named the first star of the game. Friday marked his seventh win in his eleventh game in April.

Juuse Saros Nashville Predators
Juuse Saros, Nashville Predators (Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)

Going into this series Saros has been one of the hottest goaltenders in the NHL. Since the beginning of March, his record is 12-4-0 with a 1.75 GAA and a .945 save percentage. As my colleague Jeff Middleton said, if it wasn’t for Saros’ inconsistent play at the beginning of the season, he would be a candidate for the Vezina Trophy. 

Offensive Play of Luke Kunin

Much like Saros, Luke Kunin has performed extremely well since returning from injury. The 23-year-old forward was sidelined almost the entire month of March with an upper-body injury. Since his return, he has played in 15 games and recorded five goals and six assists totaling 11 points.

“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 to the media after his team’s Monday night victory over the Blackhawks. “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 for success.”

John Hynes Nashville Predators
John Hynes, Nashville Predators (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Kunin played extremely well against Chicago this past week. He scored one goal in all three games and notched a secondary assist on Calle Jarnkrok’s goal on Monday night. In the last match-up of the series, Kunin ended up with the game-winning goal, and was selected as third star of the game behind Saros and Malcolm Subban.

A Final Push to the Postseason

Nashville’s final record against Chicago this season is 7-0-1. Since the Predators became a franchise in 1998, they have played more games against the Blackhawks than any other NHL team. Much like this season, Nashville’s overall record against Chicago favors Hynes’ team.

No matter which way you looked at this mini-series, there were six crucial points up for grabs. Yes, these two teams are battling each other for the fourth spot, but we can’t forget about the Dallas Stars. As I write this, Dallas has jumped ahead of Chicago and is two points behind Nashville. The Stars will meet the Predators at Bridgestone Arena for their final match-up on Saturday, May 1.

Roman Josi
Nashville Predators defenseman Roman Josi is congratulated by the bench. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Nashville survived an intense battle this past week. Earning five out of six points was a big step towards a postseason appearance. Defenseman Ryan Ellis spoke to media after Friday’s victory and said, “The last few games, we’ve established the way we want to play. We’re becoming more and more consistent in that style, and it was a good way to end the season series.”

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