The Nashville Predators defeated the Chicago Blackhawks 4-1 on Thursday night, propelling them into the second round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Qualifying for the postseason with the fewest points of any playoff-bound team, few gave the Predators a chance against a team with three Stanley Cups in the past seven years.
Championships aside, Chicago finished nine wins and 15 points ahead of Nashville during the regular season. They scored more goals. They gave up fewer. And they had taken the season series in resounding fashion, winning four of five matchups and outscoring the Predators 20-13 in the process. While the Blackhawks surged to the head of the Western Conference, the Predators struggled to find consistency. It looked like a mismatch of monumental proportions.
Speed to Burn
Nashville, in becoming the first eight seed in National Hockey League history to sweep a one seed, won every which way in this series. In game one, they grabbed an early lead and wouldn’t let go, retreating into a defensive shell to win 1-0. Game two went end to end, with the Predators gradually taking over and converting their chances, winning 5-0. Game three saw the Preds in a 2-0 hole, but scratch and claw their way back before winning in overtime. And game four was a perfect display of Predators hockey at its finest: straight-line speed, all through the lineup. It was this speed led to three of the four Predator goals.
Nashville’s superior team speed was evident from the start of this series. Chicago has some guys that can go, to be sure. But speed permeates the Predators lineup, making each and every line a nightmare for the opposition. On the very first shift of game four, Kevin Fiala forced Duncan Keith into a hooking penalty. Duncan Keith is not a slow player. On the contrary, he’s one of the best defensemen in the world. And yet, Fiala, a mere depth forward, forced Keith to take an incorrect route, surprising him with his speed.
Corey Crawford was outstanding in the Blackhawks net, and was the sole reason the first period ended with no goals scored, given the Predators’ utter domination in the game’s early stages. The scoreless draw was broken midway through the second, when a Roman Josi point shot floated through a crowd and snuck through his five-hole. Things didn’t get much better when, a period later, a ricochet off the crossbar, unbeknownst to him, got caught up in Crawford’s equipment. Flailing about looking for the rebound, Crawford ended up depositing the puck in his own net.
Crawford undoubtedly deserved better, but this was the Predators’ night. Even when the Blackhawks managed to get set up in Nashville’s end, the Preds’ defense was quick to lock things down. And then, when Chicago’s full-court press in the third period did yield some scoring opportunities, Pekka Rinne was there to snuff them out. Two glove saves in particular – off of Jonathan Toews and Brian Campbell – looked like little more than child’s play for Rinne, who was on top of his game from the start of the series.
More important than the team, this was a night for Predators fans. Gone are the memories of 2010, when the Blackhawks defeated the Preds in six games. Gone are the memories of 2015, when history repeated itself. Gone is the angst over Blackhawks fans taking over Bridgestone Arena. For the first time in their history, the Predators are legitimate contenders. And their long-suffering fans have earned it.
So what now for the Nashville Predators? Nothing to do but await the winner of the Minnesota Wild-St. Louis Blues series. During the regular season, the Preds were 2-2-1 against the Wild and 3-2 versus the Blues; not much in it, either way. Regardless, the Predators will, at the very least, have the opportunity to play for the Central Division championship. If they win, they stand a very good chance at being the Western Conference’s representative in the Stanley Cup Final.
But for now, wake the townspeople, for the Predators hath slain the dragon.