CHICAGO – The Nashville Predators are on a roll headed to the all-star break. Who’d blame them if they wanted to keep playing instead of taking some time off?
Pekka Rinne made 24 saves for his ninth straight win as the surging Predators beat the injury-depleted Chicago Blackhawks 3-2 Tuesday night.
The Predators are now 12-2 in their last 14 games and have beaten the Blackhawks twice in four days in the highly competitive Central Division.
And Rinne has played a major role in the run, going 12-1-0 since Dec. 28.
“We’ve come a long way in the last month or so. We fly under the radar in this division,” said Mike Fisher, who had one of the Predators’ two first-period goals.
“But we play solid and consistent. And Rinne, he’s been unbelievable. When we’re playing with leads, he shuts the door.”
That’s what he did after Craig Smith and Fisher scored in the first to give the Predators an early lead.
Rinne had a shutout until Dave Bolland scored on the power play in the third. After Chicago’s only score, the Predators turned away two more power plays in the final period before Colin Wilson iced the victory on an empty-netter with 12.8 seconds left.
“They’ve made it way easier for me,” Rinne said of the game’s final frantic stretch. “It was all about desperation mode. We did a great job blocking shots and killing the clock.”
There are six teams in the Western Conference with at least 60 points and four of those are from the Central Division.
“It’s almost the four best teams in the whole NHL in this division. It shows how good a division we have,” said Rinne. “Every year, we’ve been seventh-eighth-ninth, on the bubble, fighting for a spot. Now, the deeper we go, the more fun it gets.”
Chicago played without captain Jonathan Toews, who was placed on injured reserve with a wrist injury and will also miss this weekend’s All-Star game. The Blackhawks, who lost 5-2 to the Predators in Nashville on Saturday night, are also without injured Patrick Sharp.
The Blackhawks, now 19-6-4 at home, won’t be back at the United Center until Feb. 19 — they have a nine-game road trip after the All-Star break.
“With (Jonathan Toews’) case, hopefully he comes out of (the all-star break) fresh, and can start, we’ll see how that goes,” said Chicago coach Joel Quenneville. “And (Patrick Sharp) as well, a whole week off is beneficial. And knowing that we’re going into a tough stretch, in a tough month, but we’ve got to be better than we were today.”
The Blackhawks had trouble mustering offence against Rinne, but it was some shaky play on the defensive end that helped the Predators get a pair of first-period goals.
The Hawks failed to clear the puck, Smith retrieved it in the left circle then whirled around and shot it past Corey Crawford for a 1-0 lead with 8:11 left in the period. Patric Hornqvist later outscrapped Chicago’s Nick Leddy for a puck behind the net and got it to Fisher, who scored from in close to put the Predators up 2-0 with just over 2 minutes to go.
“I thought tonight, the first two goals were very generous on our part,” Quenneville said.
Crawford, who’d been pulled in Saturday night’s loss, was so frustrated by Fisher’s score that he slammed his stick and broke it over the goal.
“First one I didn’t see, the second one, I don’t know, they were able to make a good play out in front,” Crawford said.
“They’re a team that’s on a roll, too. They’ve got a ton of confidence, and a ton of momentum right now, something that we maybe could have broken if we had tied it up at the end there. Tough loss. You look at the other teams in our division, it seems like everyone’s rolling right now, we’re kind of up and down.”
NOTES: New White Sox manager Robin Ventura, in town for the team’s winter convention this weekend, participated in a puck shoot between the second and third periods.