Preda­tors are mak­ing us question ev­ery­thing

The Commercial Appeal - - Sports - COM­MEN­TARY JOE REXRODE

CHICAGO – En­ergy, sharp­ness, phys­i­cal­ity in front of the net and a quick goal. We ex­pected to see all these things Satur­day night at United Cen­ter, and we did.

We just fig­ured they’d come from the guys in red.

But it did not take long in Game 2, and it has not taken long in this se­ries, to see the Nashville Preda­tors for what they are. A very tal­ented group of play­ers granted an op­por­tu­nity to prove them­selves against the NHL’s best, re­spond­ing with the kind of fo­cused fury that gives them a chance to do it.

The Preda­tors’ 5-0 rout of the Chicago Black­hawks in front of 22,175 stunned spec­ta­tors, and a whole bunch more on an NBC na­tional tele­cast, does not win them a se­ries. Will not de­ter the Black­hawks. Can­not be cel­e­brated as any­thing but in­cre­men­tal progress.

But these guys look aw­fully good right now, don’t they?

None bet­ter than goal­tender Pekka Rinne, who made Chicago his own over the week­end, be­com­ing the first goal­tender since Philadel­phia’s Michael Leighton in 2010 to record con­sec­u­tive play­off shutouts.

It’s enough to make you question the point of an NHL reg­u­lar sea­son, and of re­ports that Rinne is 34 years old, and of mak­ing pre­dic­tions, and of declar­ing that the Preda­tors’ stretch run should have been de­voted to avoid­ing this match up (ahem).

It’ll have a lot of peo­ple ques­tion­ing the West­ern Con­fer­ence No. 1 seed, Stan­ley Cup fa­vorite Black­hawks. They must re­spond in Mon­day’s Game 3 in a Bridge­stone Arena en­vi­ron­ment that is al­ready mak­ing these ears quiver with fear, or they will be in se­ri­ous dan­ger of a sec­ond straight first-round up­set loss.

And it should in­spire all of us to prac­tice spell­ing Zol­nier­czyk. That’s Preda­tors for­ward Harry Zol­nier­czyk, re­ferred to re­cently by an un­in­formed media mem­ber as Henry Zol­nier­czyk (ahem), and one of four Preda­tors to score their first play­off goal Satur­day.

His made it 2-0 in the sec­ond pe­riod, af­ter Ryan El­lis started things with an early rocket and just be­fore Colton Sis­sons opened things up for a 3-0 lead. Kevin Fiala was the other new­bie, join­ing Ryan Jo­hansen with third-pe­riod scores that sent the hushed crowd for the ex­its early.

We must also learn to pro­nounce Zol­nier­czyk cor­rectly (it’s zoal-nerCHUCK), and NBC’s Doc Em­rick – per­haps the best play-by-play an­nouncer in sports – made sure to dou­blecheck that with Preda­tors ra­dio voice Pete We­ber dur­ing the game.

Em­rick prob­a­bly didn’t think he’d be call­ing a Preda­tors rout. But that made things nice and easy for NBC as it moved to­ward an episode of Satur­day Night Live. And Em­rick in­tro­duced view­ers to some play­ers who are prov­ing ready for prime time.

Rinne has been one for a while, of course, but this start for him is as­tound­ing. The Black­hawks hit a cou­ple of posts in the first two pe­ri­ods, but Rinne and his de­fense de­serve credit for an­other mas­ter­ful per­for­mance.

The Black­hawks talked a lot be­tween games about get­ting traf­fic in front of the net and mak­ing things un­com­fort­able for him. But he is see­ing and stop­ping ev­ery­thing, 59 saves on 59 shots in two games.

I mean, the guy had two as­sists Satur­day night. What more can he do?

Ac­tu­ally, here’s one thing: Re­mind his team that Nashville won the first two games at Ana­heim last sea­son be­fore los­ing three straight.

The Preda­tors ended up win­ning in seven. But the point is, this is hockey and mo­men­tum changes faster than two teams can make a bunch of ex­perts look like they’ve never watched the game be­fore (ahem).

Con­tact Joe Rexrode at jrexrode@ten­ and fol­low him on Twit­ter @jo­erexrode.

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