Even with a goalie controversy, the Blackhawks are in better shape than they were a year ago in the playoffs — when they were down 2-0 to the St. Louis Blues after losing back-to-back overtime games at Scottrade Center.
This time, even with backup Scott Darling replacing a struggling Corey Crawford and the defense not playing particularly well in front of either of them, the Hawks still are 1-1 with the Nashville Predators in their opening-round series and heading into Game 3 with two advantages: the Hawks are on home ice and the Predators don’t have all-star defenseman and team captain Shea Weber.
It remains to be seen how much of an advantage either factor actually becomes. The Hawks’ record at home this season (24-12-5) was fifth in the Western Conference, but their worst home record since 2010-11, when they were 24-17-0 at the United Center in the regular season and 0-3 at home in the playoffs in a first-round loss to the Phoenix Coyotes.
But the playoffs often bring out the best in the Hawks — though it is not often a work of art. The Hawks’ 35-13 (.729) home record in the playoffs since 2009 is the best in the NHL in that span.
“The playoffs seems a little bit more fun,” Hawks forward Patrick Kane, who has been part of several magical moments at the United Center in the playoffs. “It seems like the crowd is even more into it than in a regular-season game. So it’s good to build off that.”
Though the series is tied 1-1, the Hawks are coming off a 6-2 loss to the Predators at Bridgestone Arena on Thursday night and with Darling making his first Stanley Cup playoff start, the Hawks will be leaning on home-ice advantage a bit more than normal in Game 3.
“For obvious reasons we’ve had success at home,” Kane said. “I think it’s a good feeling comin back at 1-1 that we get the next two games at home and hopefully come away with the lead after these next two.
“It’s important to us to play well at home. I tink we always kind of challenge ourselves to be good in front of the home crowd, et them behind us and get them excited out there.”
The Predators have struggled on the road this season. Their 19-16-6 record in the regular season ranked 10th among 14 teams in the Western Conference. They lost 2-1 in overtime and 5-4 in a shootout at the United Center this season.
And the Predators’ degree-of-difficult figures to increase on the road without Weber, who suffered a lower-body injury in Game 2 and did not make the trip to Chicago. Weber, a three-time Norris Trophy finalist, is the Predators best player and captain.
“I don’t know if it changes much, Kane said. “Look at [Game 2] — [down 2-1] after he went down and their team obviously rallied around that injury. It seemed like they played pretty well without him.”
Still, especially on the road where the Predators can’t dictate match-ups, Weber’s absence could be a bigger factor. The Predators were 1-4-2 without Weber the past two seasons, allowing 29 goals in seven games.
“That’s a big player for them, whether it’s power play or the penalty kill or defending our top line,” Kane said. “It’s important for us to not think about that too much, and just try as best we can to create as many chances as possible. But I’m sure deep down, they’ll definitely miss him.”
Hawks coach Joel Quenneville downplayed the impact of Weber’s absence. The Predators’ Roman Josi, Weber’s defensive partner and an emerging star who scored arguably the most crucial goal of Game 2 with 3.6 seconds left in the first period, was more productive offensively in the regular season with 15 goals and 55 points. Weber had 15 goals and 45 points — down from the 23 goals and 56 points he scored in 2013-14.
“We didn’t take advantage of them having five [defensemen] for the latter part of the game and expose them like we would have liked to,” Quenneville said. “Their defense is extremely deep and mobile and one of the strengths of their team. There are guys that don’t get as many minutes because Shea plays so much — those guys are probably excited about getting a chance to play more. Anything we can do to slow down their [defenseman, with or without Weber] is something we talk about going into every game.”