In case anyone among the sellout crowd at Sommet Center was too focused on football over the last two-plus months, the Nashville Predators and Chicago Blackhawks offered a condensed version of the battle they have waged for Central Division supremacy on Saturday.
In three periods of game action the two sides made perfectly clear for the 17,113 in attendance how things have played out since the NHL season opened in early October.
The Blackhawks jumped out to an early lead. The Predators caught them briefly.
The result – a 4-1 Nashville defeat – proved, though, that the home team still has work to do in order to close the gap – in both performance and the standings. The loss left the Predators six points back and down 3-2 in season series, which concludes Sunday at Chicago (6 p.m., Fox Sports-Tennessee).
“It had to be a bigger deal – (we needed) more urgency, more of that fire in the belly, if you will,” coach Barry Trotz said. “It’s not just another game against Chicago. It’s not one of 82. You’re battling for something, and if we’re not battling then our expectations of ourselves are too low.”
Martin Erat’s breakaway goal at 7:38 of the second period tied the score 1-1 after it seemed early on that Nashville was going to get blown out. Chicago grabbed the early lead with a power-play goal at 9:44 of the first period, at which time it had an 11-1 advantage in shots.
Erat’s offensive emergence, of course, has helped propel the Predators’ recent climb in the standings. This goal, his team-leading 13th, was his eighth in the last 11 games.
“We came out fine, but we didn’t want to shoot the puck for some reason,” Trotz said. “Early, we ended up on the downside of a lopsided shot chart. Then we fought back to where I thought we were playing fairly even with them.
“Marty’s goal, I thought, gave us a boost.”
It was similar to the season, which for Nashville featured an early six-game losing streak after a pair of victories. The Predators overcame those struggles and actually tied for the most points in the Western Conference with a 5-3 victory at Calgary on Dec. 19.
Chicago, on the other hand, opened 5-1-1, and has managed to stay at or near the top of the conference standings throughout. It came into this contest tied with San Jose at 51 points but having played one less game.
“These two games will be huge for points in the standings,” Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp said. “It’s only the 40-game mark, but you’ve got two teams battling for the top of the division, so it’s a big part of the year.”
The Blackhawks beat back the Predators’ rally in this one with three goals in the final 7:34 of the second period. The first two of those were scored 70 seconds part by Patrick Kane and Andrew Ladd.
“They were the better team (Saturday) night, no question,” Nashville captain Jason Arnott said. “We were flat coming out of the gates, picked it up a little bit and then fell flat again.”
They have to hope that last part is not foreshadowing what’s to come this season, which — of course — started a little flat and then picked up in recent weeks.
• Forward Andreas Thuresson was recalled for the third time this season and played in place of Jerred Smithson, who was out with an upper body injury sustained Tuesday at Vancouver.
Thuresson did not have a shot or a hit and was a minus-1 in 12:22 of ice time.
Saturday’s contest was just the second Smithson has missed since the start of the 2007-08 season.
• Prodigal Predators’ forward Alexander Radulov was named to Russia’s 2010 Olympic team on Friday.
The 23-year-old is in his second season with Salavat Yulayev of Russia’s Continental Hockey League despite the fact that he still is under contract with Nashville.
A first-round draft pick in 2004 (15th overall) had 44 goals and 51 assists in 145 games with the Predators in 2006-07 and 07-08.
• Nashville allowed 40 shots, the most since Buffalo had 42 in the third game of the season back on Oct. 10.
• Eleven of Erat’s 13 goals this season have been scored at home.