CHICAGO (AP) - Juuse Saros made 29 saves, Luke Kunin scored for the third straight game and the Nashville Predators beat the Chicago Blackhawks 3-1 on Friday night.
Ryan Johansen and Erik Haula also scored for the Predators, who improved to 26-21-2 (54 points) and strengthened their grip on fourth place and the final playoff berth in the Central Division.
Coach John Hynes likes the way his team is heading into the stretch after taking five points over three straight games with the Blackhawks, Nashville’s longtime division rival.
“We knew they were going to be big games,” Hynes said. “It was nice to see the response and we played a pretty solid game tonight.
“There’s been a lot of consistency to how we’ve played the last six weeks and an identity to the way we play.”
Nashville finished its season series with Chicago at 7-0-1, in part by putting aggressive forechecking pressure on Chicago’s young defensemen, The Predators rebounded with tidy effort in this one after Chicago rallied with three goals in the third period and went on to a 5-4 overtime win on Wednesday.
“We handled them well this year,” Johansen said. “A lot of tough games, close games and we found a way to win. Huge points for us.”
Vinnie Hinostroza scored with 3:19 left in the third period to spoil Saros’ shutout bid. But Saros was sharp throughout - especially in the scoreless first period when Chicago dominated late in the frame - and kept the Blackhawks at bay for most of the night.
“Juice, juice (Saros) really impressed me tonight,” Johansen said. “He was a stud. They had some looks early-on and he was in total control of his game.”
Malcolm Subban stopped 25 shots in his second straight start, but gave up two soft goals. The loss left fading Chicago in sixth place in the Central with 49 points (22-21-5), five behind Nashville with eight games remaining.
“We have to keep fighting,” Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton said. “It’s important that we give ourselves a chance by competing hard from start to finish..”
Colliton admitted the Predators were tough on his rebuilding team and its postseason hopes.
“That changes the standings that they won seven of eight against us,” he said. “They have a style that’s hard for us.”
Subban kept it scoreless with a close-in left pad save on Johansen with about 4 minutes left in the first period after Johansen took Viktor Arvidsson’s feed on a 2-on-1 break.
Pius Suter actually beat Saros with a shot from the slot about a minute into the second, but the puck clanked off the crossbar, bounced onto the ice and slid clear.
Johansen opened the scoring at 6:33 of the second. Johansen was battling with Chicago’s Kirby Dach in the crease and knocked in a loose puck after Ryan Ellis whipped it in front from left wing.
Kunin gave Nashville a 2-0 lead with 3:36 left in the second on a soft goal. His shot from a sharp angle to the right of the net somehow slipped under Subban’s skate as the Blackhawks goalie hugged the right post.
Kunin, who has seven goals overall, finished with four goals and four assists in eight games against Chicago this season.
Haula made it 3-0 with 3:55 left in the third when his shot from the right corner slipped in off Subban’s equipment.
Moments later, Wyatt Kalynuk flipped in a shot that barely made it over the goal line after Hinostroza deflected it. The goal needed video confirmation.
HE’S NO. 1
Saros made his seventh straight start, 12th in 13 games and 15th in 17, as he has taken the mantle of Nashville’s No. 1 goalie from fellow Finn, 38-year-old Pekka Rinne.
Chicago defenseman Calvin de Haan (hip, day-to-day) sat out, but the Blackhawks played with seven defensemen as slumping center Dylan Strome was scratched for a second straight game. Rookie D-man Nicolas Beaudin, one of Chicago’s top prospects, took de Haan’s spot. Strome had one goal and one assist in his previous eight.
Predators: Host Florida on Monday in the first of a two-game set.
Blackhawks: Host Tampa Bay on Tuesday.
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