You think scores are settled in the first couple of games in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs? I know I think not! In fact, with the eight opening matches underway, and two games already in the books, only the Montreal Canadiens and Anaheim Ducks can claim a 2-0 lead over their opponents (Ottawa and Winnipeg). Each series now shifts to the opposing city, where the lower of the two seeds will host Games Three and Four over the coming days.
For our Nashville Predators, they head to Chicago with guarded optimism after a 6-2 pasting of the Blackhawks at Bridgestone Arena Friday night. Needing a strong rebound game after a disappointing, yet well played 4-3 loss in double overtime, the Preds controlled the play from the outset of the game. The team seemed to be doing everything right, not unlike their tremendous opening period on Wednesday when they took a 3-0 lead heading into the dressing room.
Once again, Colin Wilson provided opening fireworks with his power play goal nearing the three minute mark of the game. Undisciplined Hawks agitator Kris Versteeg had taken an early, ill-advised charging penalty and that set the stage for the speedy Wilson, who roofed a shot over Chicago’s goaltender Corey Crawford shoulder, and the early Preds lead.
Crawford, victim of the three Wednesday goals, was considered somewhat of a surprise starter for Game Two given the performance turned in by his rookie understudy, Scott Darling. While the Predators maintained puck possession and shot advantage against Crawford and the Hawks, they lost the lead with just under four minutes to go in the opening frame when Patrick Sharp tied the game, beating Pekka Rinne while on a delayed penalty call against Nashville.
Just seconds remained in the first period when Nashville defenseman Roman Josi took a pass from his partner, Shea Weber, and carried the puck into the Hawk zone, found a lane and fired a shot past Crawford, lighting the lamp with less than five seconds to go. So, as they did on Wednesday, the Preds headed into the locker room at the intermission buoyed by a big goal, a lead, and a frenzied fan base trying to break arena decibel level records at every turn.
What made this game different from Game One, where Chicago overwhmed Nashville with three second-period goals of their own?
For one, the Preds had already experienced a Chicago “push-back” when they had tied the game, and the team was able to answer succinctly with Josi’s goal. Also, there’d be no replacing Crawford on this night. Although having given up the two first period goals, he faced a barrage of 16 shots and was honestly keeping his team in the game. So much so, that the Hawks did tie the game midway through the second stanza when Patrick Kane beat Rinne for his first goal of the post-season.
Of note was that a moment before, the Preds lost their captain, Weber, to a lower body injury, having been checked behind the net by Hawk forward Brandon Saad. Weber was not to return for the remainder of the game (Note: Weber will not accompany the team to Chicago, missing Games Three and Four. Status update to be reviewed on Wednesday.) This sequence was certainly a turning point for Nashville, having lost center Mike Fisher in Game One, and now stalwart defenseman Weber in Game Two, and then a Blackhawk goal, as the crowd was unsure what to make of this turn of events.
As it turned out, there was no fear, there was no back down, there were only goals… Nashville goals… FOUR MORE Nashville goals, including three in a wild span of two minutes and 19 seconds in the final period that turned a nailbiter into a laugher. Craig Smith returned from “picture on a milk-carton” status, having had just three assists in his previous 10 games, to find the back of the net twice as well as add an assist. Filip Forsberg and Mike Santorelli (inserted to replace Fisher) also tallied to send the crowd home happy.
Game Three is set for 2:00 p.m. in Chicago (and Nashville), and without Weber, it is up to the team to play a smart, disciplined game in the United Center and not get rattled by the opposition, the hostile fans or the fact that the man who wears the C will be watching from his home in Tennessee. Look for Seth Jones to pick up the minutes vacated by Weber’s departure. Anton Volchenkov, who did skate in Game One, could slot in on the third pairing. Volchenkov, though not fleet afoot, can deliver disturbing checks to oncoming Chicago forwards and is a veteran of many post-season wars during his NHL career. However, at game time we learn that Victor Bartley will make his post-season debut as the sixth blueliner. Bartley, played 37 regular season games with 10 assists this year.
Fisher did travel with the team and will be a game-time decision, though based on the job Santorelli did in Game Two, it is not clear who would draw out if he were to rejoin the lineup. Additionally, with the Milwaukee Admirals out of the post-season in the American League, nine “Black Aces” have been recalled to join the Nashville squad in their run through the post season. These players will generally be around to practice with the team, and they will be available if further injury creates voids that can’t be filled with current roster players. Arriving from Milwaukee are goaltenders Marek Mazanec and Magnus Hellberg, defensemen Anthony Bitetto and Johan Alm, and Admirals Captain Joe Piskula, alongwith forwards Austin Watson, Colton Sissons, Viktor Arvidsson and Rich Clune. Clune was a regular member of the Preds the previous two seasons. Mazanec, Hellberg, Bitetto, Piskula, Watson, Sissons and Arvidsson have all played games with Nashville over the last season or two.
Chicago’s coach Joel Quenneville has already announced that Darling will replace Crawford as the starting netminder in Game Three. While Darling had a sensational relief appearance on Wednesday, stopping all 42 shots he faced, he is still a rookie being showcased on hockey’s grandest stage. If the Predators continue to dominate, as they have in both opening periods in the series, it is fair to think that he will be vulnerable and aware of the pressure resting on his shoulders, as Crawford clearly remains a liability vs. Preds shooters.
As usual, you can follow our blog on Twitter, and Facebook, as well as my personal Twitter account, though even I, as brave as can be, did not find it necessary to make the trip to Chicago for the games today and Tuesday. I’ll be happy to share the experience with many Predators fans who will be having festive – and hopefully celebratory – viewing sessions throughout the city and its outlying areas. GO, PREDS!