Predators find offense on home ice vs. 'Hawks

Matt Rybaltowski, The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange

NASHVILLE -- The Nashville Predators' franchise-tying seven-game road swing spanned three time-zones, more than 6,800 miles and included a jaunt through the desert outside of Phoenix, as well as a dusting of snow in the Northeast during the 17-day mega trip.
At one point, left winger Gabriel Bourque left the team to be with his wife for the birth of their first child and returned in time to score the team's only goal in Friday's conclusion to the trip.
For an exhausted, battered Predators' squad, a return to the Music City couldn't have come any sooner. Nashville raced out to a 4-0 lead against the Chicago Blackhawks, its Central Division rivals Saturday night, en route to a 7-2 rout at Bridgestone Arena.
An anemic Predators' offense, which scored only two goals over their final four games of the road trip, found the net three times in Saturday's first 30 minutes. With the victory, Nashville (9-9-2) broke a season-long four-game skid as the Blackhawks' four-game winning streak came to an end.
"We didn't play a lot of games for the amount of days we were gone," Predators defenseman Shea Weber said. "There shouldn't be any excuse for being tired. We got home at a decent time last night, got to sleep in our own beds and obviously the guys showed up."
Over the first quarter of the season, the Predators struggled to win when falling behind early. Entering Saturday's contest, seven of Nashville's eight victories came when it scored the game's opening goal. When the Predators have allowed the game's first score, however, they are only 1-8.
The Predators struck first at 7:28 of the first period when sliding Matt Cullen pounced on a failed clearance from Blackhawks goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin. It was the Predators center's third goal of the season.
Less than a minute later, Nashville increased its lead to 2-0 on a powerful blast by Nick Spaling. The Predators center collected the puck along the right-wing boards, placed a whizzing shot over Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook and defeated Khabibulin to the high side.
Khabibulin, 40, was replaced by Corey Crawford later in the period after suffering an apparent groin injury. Crawford made 17 saves, but finished with a 77.3 save percentage in the defeat.
Midway through the second period, the Predators took a 3-0 lead on a power-play goal by Patric Hornqvist. Weber was credited with an assist on the play for his 300th career point.
With less than two minutes left in the period, the Predators padded the lead to 4-0 on a backhand goal by center Craig Smith.
The Blackhawks (13-3-4) got on the board late in the second period with a goal by right winger Patrick Kane, his team-leading 11th goal of the season.
Chicago cut the lead to 4-2 on center Brandon Pirri's fifth goal of the year at 6:14 of the third period, but Nashville quickly ended any hope for an improbable comeback with a score 15 seconds later by winger Viktor Stalberg.
"I thought it was a rough game for us," Crawford said. "When we scored that one, they came back and scored right away -- that did shift things. It was pretty much all for the night."
Stalberg, who spent the previous three seasons in a Blackhawks' uniform, received a pass from Bourque on a 2-on-1 break at 6:29 and one-timed it past Crawford for his second goal of the year.
"You have to find a way to score, 2-on-1s are hard to come by in this league," Stalberg said.
Nashville capped the scoring with goals by center Mike Fisher and Weber over the game's final eight minutes. Predators goalie Marek Mazanec made 39 saves for the first win of his NHL career.
Mazanec, a 22-year old rookie from the Czech Republic, didn't appear intimidated at facing the likes of Kane and fellow forwards Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp. He was focused more on adjusting to the increased pace of the NHL.
"This hockey is still too fast for me," Mazanec said. "I don't (even) know who is shooting."
The Blackhawks, meanwhile, surrendered seven goals for the first time in more than a season. Chicago has allowed 15 goals combined in its last three games.
"We were very generous and gifting tonight," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "It was a free night for them offensively."
NOTES: In an effort to dissuade hordes of Blackhawks fans from making the short commute to Nashville to cheer on their team, the Predators enacted a "Keep the Red Out" policy in the offseason. The new ticketing policy prevents fans from purchasing single-game tickets to all three Predators-Blackhawks games in Nashville. Still, Chicago fans dressed in Blackhawks sweaters painted large swaths of Bridgestone Arena red on Saturday. ... Predators LW Viktor Stalberg faced the Blackhawks for the first time in a regular season game since leaving Chicago in the offseason. Through 13 games with the Predators, Stalberg had just one goal and two points. ... Blackhawks RW Marian Hossa (lower-body injury) made the trip to Nashville and participated in the morning skate but was a late scratch. Instead, RW Kris Versteeg was a surprise inclusion in the starting lineup alongside C Jonathan Toews and LW Patrick Sharp. Versteeg, who played for the Blackhawks from 2007 to 2010, was acquired Thursday from the Florida Panthers in a four-player trade. ... Predators C Filip Forsberg was held out of the game with an upper-body injury. Forsberg is day-to-day. ... Hossa is day-to-day, according to Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville. Blackhawks G Nikolai Khabibulin (lower-body injury) could be out longer, Quenneville added.

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