It was closing in on 1 a.m., and Preds TV play-by-play announcer Pete Weber engaged his color commentator, Stu Grimson in witty repartee about how the next game (Game Five) would be played at Bridgestone Arena “tomorrow.” Stu conveniently threw in the fact that fortunately there would be two sleep cycles between them, and then moments later Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook fired a shot past a screened Pekka Rinne, and the Preds fell to the Chicago Blackhawks 3-2 in triple overtime.
For thousands of Predators fans watching the telecast, sleep was inevitable, but came with a side of bitter defeat. For the team, a trip back to their hotel down in the series 3-1, and knowing they face elimination at home, it was merely just a matter of pushing the reset button, putting the game behind them and soldiering on to the next task at hand. Game Five.
Tonight, at 8:30 p.m., the Nashville Predators take to the ice with a single mission and common goal. Win this game. Sixty minutes of dominant hockey, and shake off the overtime demons that have plagued them in Games One and Four. For stretches of time the Preds have been the superior team in this series, but unfortunately, alternately, there have been sequences where they’ve looked completely overmatched.
Laying some of the blame on injury (Shea Weber, Mike Fisher both began the series healthy, and have since exited to this point), the team has had to modify its lines and defensive pairings, but all teams face these obstacles to varying degrees, and some adapt better than others. The Predators have played as a team all year long, and seem to know each others strengths. Plugging Seth Jones, a second year player who oozes upside, into Weber’s vacant spot has been met with varying results, and losing crucial minutes from Fisher in special team situations has created a less effective power-play, although Chicago has not been giving Nashville much in the way of the man advantage, with just five PP opportunities throughout the two games played at the United Center.
The simple fact is that Nashville has been mired in a disappointing stretch of hockey that could not have come at a worse time. Winners of only one of their previous 10 games, and a not-so-spectacular record of 8-14-6 in their last 28 spells trouble for a team that was the league’s front runner for much of the season. While the coaching staff and players have spun it that the team has essentially been happy with its play, the numbers don’t lie, and for this team to win three in a row against a surging Hawks club, chances seem slim, and some pretty significant things have to happen.
First off… Net presence. Chicago’s goaltender Scott Darling faced a lot of shots on Tuesday night, but most were of the ho-hum “one and done” variety. This team has infuriated me from time to time with their unwillingness to crash the net and wreak havoc on the opposition’s defense and goalie. It’s time. There’s no more wiggle room. Plant yourself. Be it Forsberg, Stalberg, Santorelli, Wilson, Bourque… someone should ALWAYS get in the line of Darling’s vision. The Hawks worked that to perfection at 1 a.m. when Seabrook’s shot was really never even seen by Rinne.
Next… Puck support. Watch the “good teams” in these playoffs. When the puck carrier is looking for passing options, he has them… PLURAL. The Preds need to give the puck carrier more support. Too many passes just moving around the perimeter and eventually broken up on the cycle. We’re happy you like your Corsi numbers guys, but honestly, we’re happier when you back up your teammate’s efforts and stay close enough to receive a pass without it hitting the half wall or worse yet, an opponent’s stick.
Then… Those big guns from Chicago can’t be freewheeling in the Predators zone as they did for long stretches of time from the middle of the third period through the eventual end of the game. Toews, Kane, Hossa, Sharp… all dangerous, and the Preds have the speed and grit to hang with them. Focus is essential as too many careless lapses, for even milliseconds, create opportunity for their snipers.
Finally… Pekka… you were magnificent in Game Four. You stopped just about everything you could see, and from the middle of the third period to the stunner from Seabrook, you were just about perfect. Nice touch hiding that puck for a few minutes, we ALL enjoyed the rest. Tonight, just be tough as you usually are, because the third consecutive start for Darling should be the one to take advantage of. It’s time for the Predators to give the fans one more “hands up.”
Notice I didn’t say one LAST “hands up,” because the momentum from a Game Five win means anything can happen in a Game Six. With a Preds win, will Darling give Chicago coach Joel Quenneville reason to return to his starter, Corey Crawford? If that happens, you know the Preds will be brimming with confidence! Time will tell, but first the game must be played. The building should be on fire with desire tonight.
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