The Nashville Predators led every statistical category except the one that matters. They came up short on goals as the Blackhawks won 3-0  Thursday and evened the best-of-seven Western Conference quarterfinal series between the teams at two games apiece.
In front of a rowdy sellout crowd at Bridgestone Arena, the Predators outshot Chicago 33-30 but were held scoreless for the second time in three games and the fifth time in 26 all-time playoff contests. Nashville lost Game 2 on Sunday (2-0) after it had won the opener.
“We threw 66 pucks at their net tonight, we really had good chances,” Nashville coach Barry Trotz said. “We didn’t get to as many secondary pucks as we needed to and they had a better conversion rate than we did.”
In a manner eerily similar to their lone goal in Game 3, the Blackhawks scored in the early moments of a first-period power play when Patrick Sharp cleaned up a barrage of Chicago shots and hit the mark with a close-ranged wrist shot over sprawling goalie Pekka Rinne.
It was Sharp’s first goal of the postseason. His second came when he whipped a shot past Rinne’s right side on the rush 16:17 into the third period. That one effectively assured the outcome.
Chicago’s Antti Niemi became the first goalie to register two shutouts this playoff season. The defense in front of him was aided by the return of veteran defenseman Brian Campbell, who had been out with a fractured clavicle and ribs courtesy of an Alex Ovechkin hit on March 14th.
“We are excited to have (Campbell) back, we like the speed he provides and he helps us with puck possession” Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. “Momentum is very important in playoffs. We can’t be satisfied winning one game here.”
The Predators had plenty of opportunities early, including blasts from the blue line by Shea Weber and whacks at loose pucks in front of the net. Nobody connected.
They failed to capitalize on a 5-on-3 advantage when Dave Bolland was charged with a delay of game nine seconds after Tomas Kopecky went out for boarding with 4:55 left in the first.
Trotz saw that missed opportunity, with the Predators behind 1-0, as a game-changer.
“We practiced it [the 5-on-3] quite a bit in recent weeks,” Trotz said. “We shot a lot of pucks, we just didn’t get any through. If we had got it tied 1-1 there, who knows what would have happened?”
Chicago’s lead grew to 2-0 at 12:55 of the second period. That’s when Marian Hossa ripped a shot from the right side off Rinne’s pads, and Jonathon Toews tipped in the rebound.
Despite the edge in shots, Nashville captain Jason Arnott felt the team ignored too many opportunities to shoot in order to try and set up a teammate.
“I think that we passed up opportunities,” he said. “We tried to make that extra pass and we got away from those little things that we were doing right.”
Things went wrong in another fashion late in the third. Jordin Tootoo had to leave the ice after took a deflected slap-shot to the face. He did not return, and the Predators, who were without Patric Hornqvist for the third straight game, were short another forward.
Trotz says early indications are that Tootoo will be fine. He feels the same way about his team as a whole.
“If we were getting dominated I’d be extremely concerned,” he said. “But we’re not.”
Game 5 is scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday at Chicago.