Neal Hat Trick Powers Predators Past Blackhawks 3-2

In a battle of the final two teams in the NHL without a regulation loss, it was the Nashville Predators that came out on top as they bested the Chicago Blackhawks by a score of 3-2 on Thursday night.

Ben Smith scored a first period goal for the Blackhawks, and Andrew Shaw scored in the third period, but it wasn’t enough as James Neal scored a natural hat trick for the Predators. Pekka Rinne stepped up in a big way in the third period for the Predators, stopping 16 shots and keeping the Hawks largely at bay. Antti Raanta played a solid game in his second straight start, saving 24 shots in the contest.

The game started out on the sluggish side for both teams, with each team struggling to generate many chances. Derek Roy did get a good chance early in the game as he stripped the puck from Kris Versteeg at the blue line, but Raanta was up to the task as he slid out to the right side of the crease and made the save.

The Predators got a couple of huge chances near the midway point of the period, but Raanta made a few great saves. Filip Forsberg feathered a great pass across the ice to a streaking Neal, but the redirection shot went just wide. Colin Wilson had a great shot too, and Shea Weber followed that up with a hard shot of his own, but Raanta made both stops. Finally, Roman Josi’s shot from the point was swallowed up by the goaltender, and the Hawks got a much-needed whistle.

The missed chances ended up costing the Predators a few moments later as the Hawks seized the lead. After working his way out of the corner, Smith pushed a pass to Marcus Kruger near the goal line. Kruger then put a wraparound attempt through the goal crease, and Smith pounded home the loose puck to give Chicago a 1-0 lead.

The Predators got a power play shortly after the goal, but they weren’t able to generate much in the way of scoring chances. Just as it looked as the Hawks would escape the period with the lead however, the Predators struck at even strength with less than a minute remaining in the frame. Seth Jones made a good play for Nashville as he entered the zone and circled to buy a moment for his teammates to join on the rush, and when he fed a pass to Neal, the sniper didn’t miss as he fired a shot just inside the far post to tie things up at 1-1 at the conclusion of 20 minutes.

Early in the second period, the Blackhawks started out poorly, eventually running their shot-less streak to nearly 13 minutes before a Shaw shot found its way on net. After that play however, the floodgates opened a bit, with Brent Seabrook and Jonathan Toews adding chances of their own. Rinne was up to the task, stopping every shot and keeping the game tied up.

The Predators pushed back quickly after those chances, racking up several good ones of their own. Paul Gaustad put a knuckling shot on Raanta from the face-off dot, and when the goaltender yielded a rebound, Niklas Hjalmarsson was able to tie up Eric Nystrom’s stick to prevent a second chance. Seabrook then committed a penalty to keep Nashville’s momentum up, but despite two chances from Colin Wilson and Jones, the Predators came up empty on the man-advantage.

A few minutes later, the Hawks got a power play of their own, but despite spending the entire two minutes in the Nashville end of the ice, they couldn’t score. The Predators seized the momentum back after that successful kill when Neal stole a wayward pass from Brandon Saad and rifled a shot just under the crossbar to give the Predators a 2-1 edge with less than four minutes remaining in the period.

Early in the third period, the Predators extended their lead thanks to a good bit of work by Ryan Ellis. After securing the puck at the point, Ellis fired a shot toward the net that hit traffic in front, and Neal was there to collect the rebound and flip it past Raanta to make it a 3-1 game less than two minutes into the frame.

After that initial punch, the Blackhawks responded with some scoring chances of their own. Daniel Carcillo had a rebound chance just in front of the cage, but he couldn’t quite get his stick on it. Rinne then robbed Versteeg off a nice feed from Seabrook across the ice, and then stopped a Saad shot off a well-executed break into the zone by the youngster.

The intense pressure finally got to Rinne with a little over seven minutes remaining as the Hawks narrowed the deficit to one. After a funky bounce off the boards, Shaw grabbed a loose puck and drove to the net. Rinne made the initial stop, but Shaw followed up by batting the puck out of midair and into the net to make it a 3-2 game.

In the final seven minutes of the game, the Hawks tried to exert more pressure on Nashville, but they had a difficult time even pushing the puck into the offensive zone. Roman Josi had a nice play to deny Shaw a chance off a Marian Hossa feed, and Kane had a couple of shots in the final few minutes of the game, but neither went as Rinne helped the Predators to secure the victory.

The Blackhawks will wrap up their quick two-game road trip on Saturday night when they take on the reeling St. Louis Blues at Scottrade Center. 

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