The Nashville Predators’ James Neal netted all three goals for a hat trick in the team’s 3-2 victory over their Central Division rivals, the Chicago Blackhawks, on Thursday night in Nashville, Tennessee. Not to be outdone, the Predators’ Finnish goaltender, Pekka Rinne, was also outstanding, saving 30 of 32 shots faced.
Heading into the game, the Predators were 3-0-1 at home and neither squad had lost in regulation. With the Blackhawks’ starting goaltender, Corey Crawford, injured, the Blackhawks called again upon their own Finnish goaltender, backup Antti Raanta, for the second game in a row. The 25-year-old Raanta was 1-1-0 against the Predators in his career up until this point.
The Blackhawks got on the board first at 12:21 of the first period when Marcus Kruger and the Blackhawks’ fourth line sent a shot past the Predator’s goal and another eventually through the crease. On the second effort, the Blackhawks’ Ben Smith, who was waiting at the far post, hammered the puck past Rinne and into the back of the net. The goal was the four-year Boston College alum’s first goal of the season. Marcus Kruger and Brandon Saad were credited with the assists.
Unfortunately, the Blackhawks did not hold the lead for long. Less than seven minutes later, the James Neal show began, when United States Development Program alum and Plano, Texas native, Seth Jones, made a simple pass to Neal, who fired a low wrist shot past the stick side of Raanta.
The game remained tied at 1-1 until late in the second period, when Neal struck again after a giveaway by the Blackhawks’ Brandon Saad. Neal took advantage of Saad’s errant pass and fired a slap shot past a stunned Raanta, who had no chance to make the save.
Heading into the second the intermission, the Predators held a 2-1 lead and had outshot the visitors by a margin of 21 to 15.
Less than two minutes into the final period, Neal finished off his hat trick and collected his fifth goal of the season, when he converted on a rebound after a shot by defenseman Ryan Ellis.
With the score 3 to 1, and approximately 18 minutes left to play, the Predators’ Rinne showed why he is considered one of the elite goaltenders in the National Hockey League. He would go on to stop the Blackhawks’ Kris Versteeg and Brandon Saad on point blank scoring chances, followed by another stop with approximately seven minutes left to play.
To the Blackhawks’ credit, they continued to pressure the seemingly unbeatable Rinne throughout the remainder of the final period. Their efforts would pay off, when the scrappy Andrew Shaw knocked a puck out of the air and past Rinne with 7:24 left to play. The goal was Shaw’s third of the season and went down as unassisted.
With the game on the line, Blackhawks’ head coach Joel Quenneville resorted to shorting his bench in an effort to get the equalizer. Despite the effort, and pulling Raanta for the extra attacker, Rinne was simply too strong and the game ended with a score of 3 to 2.
With the victory, the Predators extended their lead in the Western Conference’s Central Division by three points. The Predators sit in first place with 12 points, followed by the Dallas Stars with 10, and the Blackhawks with nine.
The Blackhawks return to the ice tonight against arguably their greatest Central Division rival, now that the Detroit Red Wings are in the Eastern Conference, the St. Louis Blues in St. Louis, Missouri. Face off is scheduled for 7:00 p.m. CT. The game will be broadcast on WGN TV.