Despite taking 2-0 series lead, Predators know Blackhawks are 'not going to go away'

Despite taking 2-0 series lead, Predators know Blackhawks are 'not going to go away'

After blanking one of the best teams in the league on their home ice to open the playoffs, the Predators knew Game 2 would present an even greater challenge.

The expectation was the Blackhawks, who have won three Stanley Cups since 2010, would push back like they've consistently done over the last decade during those deep spring runs.

But it was the Predators who brought a much better effort Saturday night, stunning an entire city with a 5-0 victory to take a commanding 2-0 series lead back to Nashville.

To some degree, it even surprised them.

"I don’t think I would have planned for that," coach Peter Laviolette said after the game about picking up a pair of shutouts in the first two games. "They are a good hockey team, they are kind of the benchmark. ... You know what they’re capable of, the core remains the same, they are well-coached. That was not the game plan coming in here."

The Predators became the fifth team in NHL history to begin a playoff campaign with consecutive road shutouts, joining the 1936 Detroit Red Wings, 1983 Buffalo Sabres, 1995 New Jersey Devils and 2001 Toronto Maple Leafs, according to the NHL's PR staff.

It was also the first time the Blackhawks have lost consecutive home playoff games since 2002 against the St. Louis Blues, per CSN's stat guru Chris Kamka.

The Blackhawks have seemingly been through it all, including the highs and the lows. But they've never lost two straight home games to open a playoff series under Joel Quenneville, sending them into oblivion, a state you almost never see them in.

"That was frustration to a different level," Quenneville said. "That wasn't fun to watch. We dug ourselves a tremendous hole. Across the board, not too many positives came out of tonight's game. Everybody was responsible, from the coaches down to every single player. We need to get out of this mess and hole. We can play much better than that in all areas, in all aspects. We're a better hockey team than we showed tonight."

Give credit to the Predators.

For the second straight game, they jumped on the Blackhawks early and stayed aggressive throughout the game. They continued to play their style, limited the high percentage shots allowed, and got better as the game went on.

Pekka Rinne pitched his third career playoff shutout — second this postseason — with a 30-save performance, and has stopped all 59 shots he's seen this series. He also added two assists in Game 2, which is two more points than the entire Blackhawks roster through two games this series.

Four Predators players (Ryan Ellis, Harry Zolnierczyk, Colton Sissons and Kevan Fiala) scored their first career postseason goals in the victory, showing how valuable a four-line rotation is at this time of year.

"Yeah, that's the coaches mindset right now," Zolnierczyk said. "To stick with that team is to have four lines that can play. He can kind of roll four lines, 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."

The Predators have been in this position before, though, and know the job is far from over. They stole two road victories in Anaheim last year in the first round, but the Ducks fought back by pushing it to seven games before Nashville completed the series.

"I think we can learn a lot from what happened last year against Anaheim," Ellis said. "We need to keep on the gas, because this team’s not going to go away. They’ve proven time and again that they’re a championship team for a reason, and we have to keep on the gas.”

The Blackhawks became a perennial Stanley Cup contender by how they've finished series' not necessarily by how they've started.

With Saturday's loss, they slipped to 44-42 in Games 1-4 under Quenneville. But in Games 5-7? They're 32-8, proving just how difficult they will be to put away.

"Any time you're playing the Chicago Blackhawks and you have an opportunity to be up 2-0 in the series, you'll take that obviously," Zolnierczyk. "But there's a lot of work to be done here still. We're gonna have to head back to Nashville and prepare for Game 3."

How Blackhawks' Corey Crawford's career prepared him for Oilers series

How Blackhawks' Corey Crawford's career prepared him for Oilers series

When the Blackhawks signed Vezina trophy finalist Robin Lehner to a one-year deal last offseason, many thought that would be it for Corey Crawford. They thought Lehner would run away as the No. 1 goalie in Chicago and Crawford would disappear.

Those who still doubt Crawford, a two-time Stanley Cup champion with the Hawks, haven't watched his career very closely. 

Just as he battled to lead the Blackhawks to a Stanley Cup championship in 2015 after suffering an off-ice lower-body injury and just as he battled back to be a reliable last line of defense after multiple concussions the last couple seasons, he battled for the Hawks' net this season. 

Related: How will long layoff affect goalies in NHL's 24-team postseason?

NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes thinks it's that experience of battling and repeatedly finding his game after long layoffs from injuries that could make him a dangerous opponent for the Edmonton Oilers in the best-of-five qualifying round in the NHL's 24-team postseason kicking off Aug. 1 at Edmonton, assuming Crawford is the Hawks' starting goalie. The Blackhawks begin their training camp for the postseason on Monday.

"For somebody that hasn't gone through (injuries) before, there's so many unknowns and then maybe there's question marks and the mental elevator starts creeping up at times in ways that aren't helpful," Weekes, a former NHL goalie, told NBC Sports Chicago over the phone. "But the fact that he's had that experience in battling back from injury and coming back a long way and having extended layoffs, this isn't foreign to him. 

"So in that respect, it should be beneficial in a weird way and also give him the chance to heal up and rest up even more by way of this extended pause. I think that those things play in his favor. Those things should be playing in his favor for sure."

Related: How Blackhawks can beat Oilers with 'wealth of success' in qualifying round

This year, Crawford competed hard for the No. 1 goalie role. Leading up to the NHL pause on March 12, he had made 39 starts (16-20-3) and had a goals-against average of 2.77 with a .917 save percentage before the Hawks traded Lehner to the Vegas Golden Knights ahead of the trade deadline. With the Blackhawks, Lehner made 31 starts (16-10-5) and had a goals-against average of 3.01 and a .918 save percentage. Both tenders' numbers were hurt by an often struggling Hawks defense this year.

"I've always been a huge advocate of Crow. Crow's had an excellent run in Chicago," Weekes said. "I think the biggest challenge for him, which we all know, which isn't a state secret, (there's) just been some health challenges and he always battles back. Crow's a guy that'll battle and he's been able to come a long way back and rediscover his game, which is hard to do after layoffs, let alone multiple ones. 

"And I think this year, once he got back, talking to their goalie coach in Jimmy Waite and you got to credit Jimmy because he's put in so much work to be able to regroup Crow, numerous times. So this season specifically, when he first started, it was a little bit of a slow start as expected because he had such an extended layoff. 

Related: What's Blackhawks' key to victory over Oilers in NHL play-in series?

"But, I really think with them having Robin Lehner, it really helped because they didn't have to throw Crow right into the fire. And then Crow hit his stride and he's playing really well. ... He's played really well, coming down the stretch he looked excellent as well and that's great news for the Hawks because they're going to need him, especially in a shorter series in this play-in round against Edmonton and the fact that Crow has the experience that he does, he's played in huge games. 

"He's played in, obviously, Stanley Cup (finals). He's a winner, he's not afraid of the big stage. He's not afraid to play in a place like Chicago, he thrives on that and not to mention, internationally for Team Canada. I think where they're concerned, as far as his ability and his talent, he just looks like himself right now, which is great news for the Hawks and I know that his teammates have a lot of confidence in him so as long as he's able to... I know he's been on the ice, as long as he's healthy and feeling good they've got a good shot because he's been there before and he's done it before. 

"It's a unique opportunity for him and for his team, but he can lean on that experience of having played in big spots like the Stanley Cup Final and playoffs for years. That could be an advantage for the Hawks actually in that respect."

It's not clear who will start in net yet for the Oilers. Mikko Koskinen was 18-13-3 this year with a 2.75 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage and Mike Smith was 19-12-6 with a 2.95 goals-against average and a .902 save percentage. 

Although some of their numbers may measure up to Crawford's, neither goalie's journey can compare to his.

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Oilers defenseman Mike Green opts out of NHL's Return To Play program

Oilers defenseman Mike Green opts out of NHL's Return To Play program

On Saturday, the Edmonton Oilers announced that defenseman Mike Green will be opting out of the NHL's Return To Play program and the league's 24-team NHL postseason.

The Oilers released the following statement from Green:

"Due to the uncertainties surrounding COVID-19 and after much consideration, I've decided for deeply personal family health reasons, not to participate in the return to play.

"This has been a hard decision knowing I'm going to miss the opportunity to compete in the playoffs with a Stanley Cup contender. I wish the best of luck to the guys and I appreciate the Edmonton Oilers support."

Click to download the MyTeams App for the latest Blackhawks news and analysis.

The 34-year-old blueliner played in two games with Edmonton prior to March 12's NHL pause, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, before spraining his knee after being traded to the Oilers from the Detroit Red Wings in late February. 

The Oilers are scheduled to play the Blackhawks in Edmonton, one of two hub cities for the postseason tournament, in a best-of-five play-in series beginning Aug. 1.

Green is the fifth player to opt out of the NHL's Return To Play program (Travis Hamonic, Sven Baertschi, Zach Trotman and Roman Polak).