With their season hanging in the balance, the Nashville Predators hosted the Chicago Blackhawks Thursday night in Game Five of their best-0f-seven series. With Chicago winning both Games Three and Four in the United Center, the Preds found their proverbial backs to the wall, as they looked to stave off elimination in what could finally be called their first “MUST WIN” game of the season. Returning to the lineup, veteran center Mike Fisher replaced Gabriel Bourque. Forward Taylor Beck, a healthy scratch in Game Four, was slotted in over rookie Kevin Fiala. Absent again, however, was Predators captain Shea Weber.
Amidst much speculation in the “twitterverse,” and beyond, we have heard rumblings of “broken ankle,” “dislocated kneecap,” and “torn MCL (or ACL)” but the bottom line is, the NHL and the Predators reserve the right to use the term “lower body injury,” and the fans reserve the right to whine and complain, because they know that any Preds game is always better with the captain at the helm.
On this night, it was Chicago’s Brad Richards opening the scoring. Pekka Rinne got a piece of Richards’ shot, but not enough as it trickled through him and into the net for a 1-0 Chicago lead. As has been the frequent M.O. of these Preds, there was some immediate push back, and just seventy-five seconds later, after a faceoff in the Hawks zone, rookie Filip Forsberg grabbed a loose puck off the draw and fired a quick shot, beating Scott Darling to tie the game up.
In the second period, not a strong period for Nashville throughout the series, there was no scoring, and just one penalty (that to Chicago, but Nashville failed to convert,) and we’d move to the third period to finally get the exhale the crowd (and team) so desperately needed.
Just forty-seven seconds into the period, it was Preds winger James Neal coming out from behind the Chicago net, and neatly tucking the puck in on the wraparound. An early third period lead seemed to bring new life to the arena, and playing their role as “The 7th Man,” the exuberant sold-out crowd cheered heartily each time a Hawk bid was denied by Rinne, and each time a Predator thrust the puck back into the offensive zone.
It wasn’t much more than a couple minutes later that a defining twelve seconds would set this game seemingly out of reach for the Blackhawks. With Michal Rozsival off for interference, the Nashville power play went to work. The man advantage had not been much of an advantage on the first Chicago penalty, but this time the Preds figured out how to make it work.
Veteran center Mike Ribeiro worked a nice little give and go with Colin Wilson, and with great patience and puck protection, Wilson rifled it past Darling for a 3-1 lead. The raucous crowd was still up and cheering as the puck was faced off at center ice. As Mike Fisher came down the right hand side, he spotted Forsberg on the left and fed him a perfect cross-ice pass that was again buried behind Darling to make it 4-1. Two goals in twelve seconds meant a huge sigh of relief, despite there being almost seventeen minutes of time left in regulation.
An interference penalty against Chicago’s Andrew Shaw grabbed two precious minutes of time off the clock, and some sound defensive posturing led to the clock ticking down to a shade over five minutes to go in the game. The crafty Patrick Kane then made a nice move, spinning 360 degrees and firing a laser pass to winger Kris Versteeg, who buried it into an almost vacant net, and suddenly Chicago had cut the gap to 4-2.
Hawks coach Joel Quenneville made the decision to pull Darling with a little over three minutes to go, hoping to apply pressure and come up with a quick man-advantage goal. However some undisciplined play by Marian Hossa, slashing the stick of Viktor Stalberg in half, and then some additional fisticuffs between Shaw and the Predators’ Jones and Gaustad, allowed the clock to tick down to the final seconds. When Versteeg flubbed a pass in the defensive zone, Forsberg pounced on it and fired it into the empty net to recorded his first National Hockey League hat trick (three goals.) The Preds then closed out the game, winning 5-2 and sending the series back to Chicago for a Game Six on Saturday.
Now, let’s get down to the takeaway here. What just happened was the hometown heroes staved off elimination. That’s good! Now, they fly back to Chicago for a second consecutive “MUST WIN” game. That’s good, too. The Blackhawks, and Coach Quenneville are in an interesting position that, in this writer’s opinion, does not favor them in the least.
Quenneville must decide to either stick with Darling for Game Six, or go back to his number one netminder, and loser of Game Two, Corey Crawford. While this may seem like an easy decision, the implications bear watching. For Darling, both he and the Preds now know he is both human and beatable. In Game Five the Preds finally got a few quick goals past him. He could easily return for Game Six and just stand tall, hoping the Hawk defensive game continues to eliminate any rebounds, and makes life reasonably easy for the rookie goalie. (IMPORTANT UPDATE: Quenneville announces that Scott Darling WILL start Game 6.)
However, if Coach Quenneville were to decide to go back to Crawford, who has been his money guy all season long and a former Stanley Cup winner just two years ago, things get even more complicated for them. The Preds have already fired nine goals behind Crawford in just four periods of play in Games One and Two. They obviously KNOW they can beat the veteran netminder if given the opportunity to use their speed and force the Hawks on their heels. If Game Six turns into a disaster for EITHER Chicago goaltender, neither will be brimming with confidence as the play then shifts back to Nashville for the all-important Game Seven Monday. Neither Darling, nor Crawford wants this to happen, and history will bare this out.
Remember the first round of playoffs last season, as the Los Angeles Kings found themselves down three games to none against the San Jose Sharks? The Kings clawed back, winning games 4 and 5, knocking starting goaltender Antii Niemi out of both games in the process. In Game Six, Sharks coach Todd MacLellan decided to start backup goalie, rookie Alex Stalock, turning the reigns over to him and hoping to close out the series. Of course, the history lesson shows that Stalock did not hold serve. San Jose lost Game Six, forcing MacLellan into yet another decision; to go back into Game Seven with a goalie (Niemi) he already showed he had little to no confidence in to win the “big game.” Rightfully so, as it turned out, because as most should remember, the Kings completed their miracle comeback and defeated the Sharks with four consecutive wins, after being down 3-0, and then, went on to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup after defeating Anaheim, then these Chicago Blackhawks, and finally the New York Rangers.
So, be it Darling or Crawford, Chicago is desperate to close things out Saturday. All the while, the Preds have to feel like they’ve had an advantage for most of this series, losing two heartbreaking multiple overtime games, that if bounces had went their way, this series would already be in the history books.
Don’t expect too much tinkering between now and Saturday, and hopefully whatever was ailing Fisher is now behind him enough that he and his teammates can look forward to a momentum shift of quantum proportions. The Nashville Predators now have a strong pulse, and a finger on the heartbeat of this city, and this city is pulling for the Preds! Continued thanks to you readers for your support and love here, on Twitter, and on Facebook. Follow me on Twitter as well. See you after Saturday night’s Game Six!