Although he did not make the score sheet, Predators' rookie, Craig Smith's aggressive play with the puck in the offensive zone was a key to the Preds' 3-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday night at the Bridgestone Arena.
Ryan Suter, Nick Spaling, and Ryan Ellis were the goal-scoring heroes in the Predators victory against the Hawks but Craig Smith was the guy that could not find the net but kept churning out shots on a night when the Predators were out-shot by a 32-19 margin.
The win snapped the Predators three game skid and added to Chicago's misery, as their losing streak reached nine games. Their slide started with Nashville beating them home and away before the all-star break so the Preds can be held accountable for three of the Hawks' nine losses.
The Predators 19 shots was the least they had taken since a 4-1 loss to Detroit on November 26. The Predators' three shots in the final period, that included Ellis' game-winner, is the second most meager total of the season, surpassed only by a two-shot effort in a 2-0 win in Calgary on October 22.
For the record, Smith had six official shots, four misses, and another one blocked. After the game, Smith wasn't feeling snake-bit, but instead was encouraged by the effort. "If I could have hit the net it would have been alright. It was a good line. We had a lot of chances and provided momentum for the team."
Due to the absence of Patric Hornqvist with an upper-body injury, Smith was playing on a revamped line that was centered by David Legwand and had fellow rookie Gabriel Bourque on the opposite wing. Smith liked the combination. "We had good chances and it was a good switch and hopefully we can stick together."
In his 55 games as a rookie, Smith has played every possible role from the first line down to the fourth. He has seen his minutes fluctuate from over 20 minutes a game to under ten. The most games he has played in a season was as an 18 year-old when he played 58 games for Waterloo in the USHL.
Several weeks ago, Coach Barry Trotz indicated that they were backing down Smith's ice time so that he could be stronger when he was on the ice. The theory seems to have worked as Smith is gaining back the ice time and having more of a presence in the game when he is there.
Smith is taking it all in stride. "I was playing center there for a while and it got me to settle down a little bit and it was good for me. The move back to wing has been good too. I'm comfortable anywhere, so it was a positive night."
Trotz liked his revamped lines. "I was really pleased with Smith and Bourque. I thought Halischuk was real strong and Yip played decently so it gave us flexibility as far as people back there."
With the win, the Predators moved to 72 points and are now seven points ahead of Chicago and three points behind St. Louis, while sitting in a no man's land in fifth place in the Western Conference.
Smith discussed the importance of the win. "It was a big game against our divisional rival. They are a team that is close to us and we want to make separation. We haven't played our full 60 minutes the last couple of games so we wanted to make sure we came out strong and finished the game right."
"Our mindset is to catch teams in front of us and these games are big when you play teams that are around you in the standings."
The next game for the Predators on Friday, will be huge. They travel to Detroit, who set an NHL record earlier in the evening with their 21st consecutive win on home ice with a 3-1 victory over Dallas. The Wings lead the Western Conference with 80 points and Nashville still has their sights set on making up the differential and has a game in hand.
While the focus is making up two points in the standings, Smith said that the team would be happy to break the Wings streak. "They've had a long streak and I think any team would like to get in there and break it. Kudos to them. It's a pretty good run and we're looking forward to going in there to try to get two points."
The Predators will practice on Wednesday at 11 a.m at Centennial Sportsplex and then partake in the Gnashvegas charity event st the Bridgestone on Wednesday night.
Buddy Oakes for PredsOnTheGlass