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Preds play near perfect game, take series lead…

Go ahead and add a couple more “franchise firsts” to the resume.

They won their first ever playoff road game last week and then the Nashville Predators followed it up by beating the number two seed Chicago Blackhawks 4-1 in front of 16,075 at Bridgestone Arena to take a 2-1 series lead. The Preds have never lead a series 2-1.

And how did they win? By finally doing everything they should be doing game-in and game-out to be successful.

They put pucks on net, they played a full 60 minutes, they played physical, they kept the flashy Blackhawks forwards to the outside when attacking, their big money players played like big money players, they stayed out of the penalty box and, last but not least, they got solid goaltending when it counted.

It’s amazing how successful you can be when you just do what you’re supposed to, eh?

Chicago goaltender Antti Niemi ended up making 31 saves but it wasn’t enough as the Preds put four pucks past him. The key, though, was the shots came from everywhere. On special teams, even strength, dump-ins from the neutral zone, slap shots from the point, yada yada yada. Nashville did exactly what they were supposed to do all season long: put pucks on net.

They played an entire 60 minutes for the first time in a long time. Everyone remembers the debacle in San Jose last month where the Predators played the best two periods in perhaps their franchise history but then stunk it up so bad in the final stanza that they allowed six Sharks goals and ended up losing the game 8-5. It turns out, that loss may have been necessary. Nashville came out ready to play from moment one and didn’t stop until the final horn blew, which is exactly how it has to be for a playoff team without any superstars to speak of.

The Preds crushed the Blackhawks any chance they could get. Shea Weber was hiting Patrick KaneFrancis Bouillon was hitting Colin Fraser. Twice. Everybody was hitting everything and it never let up. For a fast and elusive team like Chicago, that’s how you keep them at bay. Play physical and make them second guess handling the puck or make them second guess the flashy move they want to make.

The Predators top payroll guys have finally showed up. We’ll cut them some slack on the regular season because, right now, that means nothing. The much-maligned $4.5 million men David Legwand and Martin Erat have arrived! Legwand, who only scored two goals in the calendar year of 2010, exploded for three points on Tuesday night. He only had six career playoff points coming into the post season and now he’s just one shy of doubling that. And if all that offense wasn’t enough, Legwand, who was a minus-5 in the regular season, is a team best plus-5 in these playoffs. And Erat… what can we say about him? Sure he bagged one of the empty netters in Game 1 but he’s been buzzing (and spinning) all over the ice since the post season began. In Game 3, he was awarded a questionable penalty shot in the third period and converted to not only blow the roof off the place, but also to put the game away.

That penalty shot was yet another “franchise first” by the way. The Predators organization had never been awarded a penalty shot in a playoff game in their 12 year history.

Nashville stayed out of the penalty box. In Game 2, they took seven penalties, including three back-to-back-to-back in the second period in which Chicago scored the eventual game-winning goal. The Blackhawks are loaded with offensive talent and the last thing a team like the Predators want to do is give them space and room to operate that talent. So while we’re not saying there’s a direct correlation here, the facts certainly suggest there is: Game 1 (2 penalties) = win. Game 2 (7 penalties) = loss. Game 3 (4 penalties) = win. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what all that means.

And finally we have the timely goaltending. While he didn’t have as much work as the first two games (except for the work he gave himself early in the contest), Pekka Rinne was still spectacular when he needed to be. He turned aside 26 of 27 Chicago shots and has really become a source of confidence for his team in front of him.

Early in the season he was a bit inconsistent, allowing the soft goal every once in a while, pitching a shutout in one game and then having to be pulled in the next. Things just weren’t like they were in his rookie campaign. Then Rinne got away from it all and went home to Finland for the Olympic Break. Since March 2 (the first game after the nearly three week hiatus), Rinne has been one of the league’s best, posting a 12-4-1 record to close out the regular season. In the playoffs it’s hasn’t been any different. The Kempele, Finland native has only allowed four Chicago goals in three games thus far. If you’re wondering, that’s an unbelievable .953 save percentage and a staggering 1.35 goals against average. Bottom line: the guy is white hot.

So it appears Nashville has finally discovered what we’ve been saying all along: the formula for success. If they can play like they did in Game 3 the rest of the series, they should be able to upset the Blackahawks — in their own building, in front of their own fans, on national television — on Saturday afternoon.

Maybe then we’ll get some respect.

* Patric Hornqvist was scratched for the second consecutive game with an upper body injury.
* Captain Jason Arnott has yet to record a single point in this series but did lead the team with five shots.
* Chicago superstars Kane and Jonathan Toews were held to a single shot on goal each.
* This was the first game of the series where Kane didn’t tally at least one point.
* Weber was credited with a game high five hits. Jordin Tootoo, in only 8:19 of ice time, had four.
* Ryan Suter had quite a night despite failing to appear on the score sheet. He ended with one shot, a plus-1 rating and a team high three blocked shots.
* We’d like to apologize for these game recap blogs coming the day after. Jeremy has had some computer issues at home and is unable to write them during/after the games. This should be fixed by Game 5.
* Game 4 is Thursday night at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. Tickets are still available but, once word gets out about how exciting this game was, they won’t last long. Call 615-770-PUCK to ensure you’ll be in attendance. Puck drops at 7:30pm.