Swept away: Predators eliminate Blackhawks from Stanley Cup playoffs

Swept away: Predators eliminate Blackhawks from Stanley Cup playoffs

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Four and out. On the losing end of a postseason sweep for the first time in more than 20 years. On Thursday the Blackhawks’ postseason, which began with so much promise after a 109-point regular season, ended with a thud.

Roman Josi scored twice and Pekka Rinne stopped 30 of 31 shots as the Nashville Predators beat the Blackhawks 4-1 at Bridgestone Arena. The Blackhawks were swept for the first time since the 1993 division semifinals.

“It was a major disappointment across the board,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “I don’t think any of the four games – there was a stretch in the second period where we might have been competing to the level that we needed in the playoffs. We had some stretches in maybe Game 1 and maybe in segments in all four games. Not good enough. I don’t think anybody exceeded their expectations. We don’t compete to the level that’s necessary. I take that personally, as a coach, that we didn’t find the all-out button, didn’t get the job done.”

In the Blackhawks’ locker room there were a myriad of feelings, all in the same range: shock, bewilderment, disappointment and frustration.

“Yeah, I think we probably all thought it was going to go a different way, especially with the regular season you have,” said Patrick Kane. “Coming into the playoffs, I think we felt pretty confident. So yeah, I mean, disappointing, shocked. I don’t know. Yeah. It’s going to be a long summer, for sure.”

Quenneville said it was on him to make sure the Blackhawks were ready for this series – “whatever buttons you have to push, to find a way to make it work, whether it’s lines or excitement,” he said on what he didn’t do. But ultimately it’s the Blackhawks players who didn’t come through. They couldn’t solve the Predators, who were strong from the start. They couldn’t stop the Predators in their end and they couldn’t score at the other. In four games the Blackhawks scored just three goals, and two of them were on the power play.

“A feeling of emptiness. We can’t lose like this,” Artemi Panarin, who went goal-less in the series, said through interpreter Igor Alfimov. “[The Predators] kept it simple. We couldn’t control the puck well. Their defensemen were able to get the puck, get it into the offense. We weren’t able to control.”

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Down 1-0 the Blackhawks made a push in the third period. But about nine minutes into the third the Predators started a push the other way, with Colton Sissons ringing one off the crossbar. The puck got caught under Corey Crawford and when he pushed back, the puck went in behind him to give the Predators’ a 2-0 lead. Josi, who put the Predators up 1-0 midway through the second period, would add his second of the night about 90 seconds later.

“Yeah, it’s tough every time you lose a game in a series like this. It’s tough to mentally battle back and find that confidence and get ready for the next one,” said Jonathan Toews, whose third-period goal was his first postseason tally since the 2015 Stanley Cup final. “I think every game they seemed to get better and better and just thrive off what happened the last game. Every single time we couldn’t start the game the right way. We’d get behind, start forcing offense and then it seems like every defensive breakdown or turnover we had they would come back our way. Odd-man rushes were going in against again. Just an uphill battle every which way.”

Once again the Blackhawks talked about being ready at puck drop. Once again, they weren’t. From the start the Predators looked like they wanted no part of a return trip to Chicago. They swarmed the Blackhawks once again and were looking from the early lead at every opportunity.

Toews scored with a little more than five minutes remaining in regulation but it was too little, too late. Viktor Arvidsson scored an empty-net goal with 1:48 remaining in the game.

The Blackhawks were a heavy favorite to come out of the West this postseason. They couldn’t even get out of the first round. The Predators outplayed them throughout and now the Blackhawks will have a long offseason for the second consecutive season.

“We always talk about not expecting to just turn on the switch when we get to the playoffs. Obviously we didn’t like the way we were playing going into the playoffs and maybe not necessarily the last three games even though we lost a couple on the road, I think the switch just didn’t turn on,” Toews said. “I’m not going to sit here and try and come up with those reasons right now. We’ll have some thinking to do in the next few days and we’ve got a lot of time before next season.”

Panarin’s rep: 'He’ll forever cherish his time in Chicago'

Panarin’s rep: 'He’ll forever cherish his time in Chicago'

A little more than two years ago Artemi Panarin had many NHL teams vying for his services, the Blackhawks winning the bidding war and signing him. On Friday the Panarin-Blackhawks union was over, the 25-year-old traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets.

But according to his agent, if Panarin had it to do all over again, he still would have signed with the Blackhawks.

Dan Milstein, who represents Panarin, said the Russian left wing is forever grateful to the Blackhawks for the past two seasons in which he put up stellar numbers in consecutive regular seasons.

“The experience, playing on the same line with [Artem] Anisimov and [Patrick] Kane, having coach [Joel] Quenneville and many other members of the organization help him along the way, providing the translation services and being there for him, the entire process made his transition to North America extremely easy,” Milstein said. “He’ll forever cherish his time in Chicago.”

Milstein was in Chicago on Friday morning when he got the call from Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman on the trade – Bowman told the media on Friday that the deal “came together pretty quickly.” Milstein immediately called Panarin, who was about to get on a plane for a fishing trip in Russia.

“Initially he was shocked. But as the day went on we kept in touch and he understands,” Milstein said. “He said, ‘I understand it’s a business. I accept the challenge.’ His last words were, ‘I accept the challenge.’”

The deal, which sent Panarin and his upcoming two-year deal worth $6 million per season to Columbus, brought Brandon Saad back to Chicago. Saad will likely bring stability to the Blackhawks’ top line, which has missed his presence since he was traded in the summer of 2015. Who Kane’s left wing will be this season remains to be seen. Quenneville said on Saturday that Nick Schmaltz will probably get a good chance there; he played with Kane when Anisimov was hurt last season.

Still, the chemistry between Kane and Panarin will be tough to match. Milstein said he saw Kane briefly at the NHL Draft on Friday night, and that he told Milstein, “just let [Panarin] know that I love him.”

Panarin, like most of the Blackhawks, had a very quiet postseason. After recording seven points against the St. Louis Blues, Panarin had just one assist in four games against the Nashville Predators. Not long after the playoffs Panarin was interviewed in Russian. One of the quotes, translated into English, read, “I was not in the best shape and didn’t have enough strength” for the playoffs. Milstein didn’t believe that was an accurate translation.

“If you know Panarin, in his native tongue he’s very funny. If you use a translator, sometimes it takes things out of context. But I don’t believe that’s what he meant,” Milstein said. “He put a good [regular] season together, a fair season, but the performance in the playoffs, obviously, he was disappointed. He was frustrated with his performance.”

Milstein said Panarin will probably head to Columbus in a few weeks; he’s currently waiting on visa issues. Panarin’s time in Chicago was shorter than most thought it would be but his agent said he’s ready for the next challenge.

“Artemi is looking forward to coming here,” said Milstein, who was in Columbus on Monday. “This will be a good opportunity to shine.”

Blackhawks ink Anton Forsberg, Tomas Jurco

Blackhawks ink Anton Forsberg, Tomas Jurco

When the Blackhawks traded to get Brandon Saad back, they also acquired Anton Forsberg, who they believe is ready to be their latest backup goaltender. On Monday they signed him to a two-year deal.

The Blackhawks inked two players on Monday, Forsberg, whose contract runs through the 2018-19 season, and Tomas Jurco, who agreed to a one-year contract extension.

Forsberg joins the Blackhawks having very little NHL experience – he’s played 10 career games at this level, going 1-8-0. But the Blackhawks’ previous two backup goaltenders, Antti Raanta and Scott Darling, hadn’t made an NHL appearance before joining the Blackhawks. Forsberg led the Cleveland Monsters, the Columbus Blue Jackets’ AHL-affiliate team, to a Calder Cup title in 2016; during that run he went 9-0 with a 1.34 goals-against average and .949 save percentage.

On Friday, when the Blackhawks acquired Saad and Forsberg from Columbus for Artemi Panarin and Tyler Motte, general manager Stan Bowman said the team is, “optimistic about Anton’s potential.”

“We like his profile as a goalie,” he said. “He’s a big guy, takes up a lot of net, has that mobility and makes good positional saves as well as athletic saves. A year ago, led his team to the [Calder] Cup championships, so he knows what it’s like to put a team on his back. It was the AHL but he’s had a lot of success there. He’s earned the right to be an NHL goalie.”

Jurco, acquired by the Blackhawks from Detroit in February, played 13 games with them down the regular-season stretch. Bowman said shortly after the trade that Jurco would get a chance here.

“We’ll be patient with him but we really think there’s a good fit there, looking at his skills and the style of hockey we play,” he said. “I think a lot of ways, sometimes guys need different opportunities. It doesn’t work out in every place. A fresh start will be great for Tomas.”