There was something for everybody in Chicago on Saturday night.
The Nashville Predators put their foot on the gas in the opening minutes of the game and did not slow down, dismantling the Chicago Blackhawks 5-0 at the United Center to take a 2-0 series lead back to Nashville.
It wasn’t just the second consecutive shutout that was so impressive for the Predators; it was also the way they spread out the scoring. Four out of the five goal scorers got their first-ever playoff goals on the night, with Ryan Johansen being the lone exception.
Ryan Ellis, Harry Zolnierczyk, Colton Sissons and Kevin Fiala all notched their first playoff tallies. According to Sissons, that kind of depth is essential at this time of year.
“I think it’s been huge,” he said after the game. “Obviously, there wasn’t much scoring in Game One, but tonight a couple more of the depth guys like Zolnierczyk and myself potted a couple of goals. Our top six guys have stepped up big-time. You’re going to need depth against the Blackhawks, they’re always deep.”
Ellis got the scoring started early in the first period with a blast at the top of the slot that found its way through traffic and past Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford. That 1-0 score would hold into the early moments in the second period, when Mattias Ekholm sprung Zolnierczyk down the middle, allowing him to roof a shot over the shoulder of Crawford.
The barrage was on from there.
Zolnierczyk, who has been playing on the second line with Mike Fisher and Austin Watson, was thrilled to get one in the back of the net.
“It’s always a special feeling when you can contribute and score a goal and help put your team ahead,” he said. “Obviously, it was a special feeling. I know the other guys were excited as well. Obviously, we’re just looking to stick to our game and create some opportunities and we found a way to put a few in tonight.”
Chicago is always known as a deep team. They are able to confidently roll out Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane on separate lines. In the past, that depth has given the Predators trouble, especially in the playoffs.
In 2017, it appears the tables have turned. Nashville is rolling four lines of scoring talent, and spreading out their production. Chicago has not been able to match it yet. As Zolnierczyk said, it’s all part of the plan against the Blackhawks.
“I think that’s the coach’s mindset right now,” he said. “To be able to stick with that team is to have four lines that can play, and he can kind of roll four lines and regardless of who they put on the ice, we’re comfortable enough facing whoever they have out there. Obviously, the playoffs are a long haul and to have four lines I think will be beneficial down the line.”
Johansen, who added a goal in the final minutes of the third period, has been a workhorse on the “JoFa” line all season long. While he liked seeing the depth getting involved in scoring, he still wants to keep playing his part.
“I don’t think it would take the pressure off,” Johansen said of the Predators’ depth. “We have a lot of guys that are capable of making plays in here. It’s just good to see them getting results. We have 20 men in here that work really hard. It’s good to see a few guys getting rewarded.”
Nashville kept up the scoring attack through the second period. Sissons scored from right in front of the goal crease midway through the second frame after a beautiful passing play by Craig Smith to set up the opportunity. That would be plenty to keep the Blackhawks at bay, and Johansen and Fiala added insurance goals late in the third period in front of a stunned and depleted crowd at the United Center.
All four lines did a solid job of getting Grade-A scoring chances and shooting from high-danger areas. Take a look at the game heat map, courtesy of Natural Stat Trick:
The bulk of Nashville’s offense came from directly in front of the net, and with the Predators out-chancing Chicago 45 to 37, they made Crawford work for every single save.
There’s plenty to love about Nashville’s first two games of the playoffs. Goaltender Pekka Rinne has stopped all 59 of Chicago’s shots, and with two assists in Game Two, has more points than the entire Blackhawks team. The Predators have outshot the Blackhawks in both games, and got the Blackhawks frustrated and on their heels.
The Predators fanbase is certainly in a tizzy, but the Predators locker room is cool, calm and collected.
“Anytime you’re playing the Chicago Blackhawks and you have the opportunity to be up 2-0 in the series, I mean, you’ll take that, obviously,” Zolnierczyk said. “There’s a lot of work to be done still here. We’re just going to have to head back to Nashville here and prepare for Game Three.”
Sissons kept it short and sweet when talking about the team’s mindset right now.
“We’re happy with the way things went in Chicago here, but there’s a long way to go.”
With that 2-0 series lead, the Predators will take this series back to Nashville for Game Three on Monday night. Puck drop is scheduled for 8:30 PM central at Bridgestone Arena.