For the 2nd straight postseason, the Chicago Blackhawks will tangle with the Vancouver Canucks in the Western Conference semifinals. Chicago clinched their first round series with a 5-3 win in Nashville on Monday, ending the Predators’ season in the process. Antti Niemi made 25 saves and both Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp notched a goal and two assists to help the Hawks move on.
Duncan Keith got things started in a wild first period, blasting a shot from the point through traffic to beat Rinne less than 7 minutes into the game. Shea Weber was quick to answer for the Preds, beating Niemi with a wrist shot of his own just over two minutes later to even the score. The Hawks got lucky a minute later, as Brent Seabrook’s dump in from the neutral zone took a funny kick off Pat Kane’s shin pad and bounced past Rinne to put Chicago back in the lead. Patrick Sharp put Chicago up by two, getting a stick on his own rebound after it bounced up in the air off Rinne’s pad, but the Preds weren’t going to go away quietly. >
Jason Arnott, who had failed to score in any of the previous games in the series, scored back to back goals in the last five minutes of the first period to pull Nashville back in the game. His first tally came on the powerplay, as he was sitting on the weak side of the crease in perfect position to net a loose rebound. In the last minute of the period, Dan Hamhuis broke up a Chicago rush with a huge hipcheck before ripping a slap shot from the point that Arnott tipped over Niemi to tie the game. Chicaog got their answer from captain Jonathan Toews less than 30 seconds later, as he scored a powerplay goal to give the Blackhawks the lead for good.
Niemi made 19 saves over the remaining two periods, 15 in the 3rd, and got plenty of help from his teammates, who did a pretty good job of keeping the Predators at bay for most of the night. Rinne was solid as well, as he didn’t allow a goal in the last two periods either, giving Nashville a chance to tie it right up until he was pulled. He couldn’t do anything to stop John Maden’s empty net goal in the waning seconds that put Nashville down for good, but if there’s one reason his club was able to force the Central Division champs to six games, it was Rinne, who finished the series with a very respectable 2.53 GAA and .911 save percentage.
Chicago and Vancouver will have a few days before their series gets started this weekend in Chicago. The Hawks will face another hot goalie in Roberto Luongo, and it’s a good thing all their scorers woke up by the end of this series, because if Luongo’s play in the late games of the Canucks’ series with Los Angeles is any indication, he could be capable of carrying Vancouver to the Cup Finals on his own merit alone.