The Nashville Predators have played well enough to be up 3-1 in their first-round series with the Blackhawks. But they’re not.
“You can’t get to the second round by playing well. You’ve got to win hockey games,” Predators coach Peter Laviolette said after his team’s morning skate prior to Game 5 at Bridgestone Arena. “That remains the goal. In the course of any game, whether you’re playing well or not, there are always things you can do better. Whatever it might be. We talk about it and we work through the course of the series and try and get better. I think that’s the only thing you can do.”
For lack of a better term, the Predators are getting Blackhawk-ed in this series. They’ve played well and met the challenge. But it’s the Hawks who have come up with the right moves — Joel Quenneville’s pulling of Corey Crawford after a 3-0 deficit in Game 1 looks more and more like a stroke of genius — and made the key plays, getting overtime game-winning goals from defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, to give them a 3-1 series lead heading into Game 5 on Thursday night at Bridgestone Arena.
In Quenneville’s seven seasons, the Hawks have never lost a series in which they led 3-1. The Hawks aren’t playing their best hockey but have been good enough when they needed to be. Both teams have scored 13 goals in the series. In the last seven years, Game 5 has statistically been the most difficult to win on the road (29-49, .372). Yet the Hawks are an NHL-best at 4-1 in Game 5s on the road under Quenneville.
The Predators have home-ice advantage. But there’s a challenge for them against a team like the Blackhawks. Not just to play well, but to play well enough to win.
“I think we’ve been playing pretty good,” Predators forward Mike Ribeiro said. “But obviously in a situation like this you want to elevate your game a little more. We’ve been pretty solid throughout the series. They won [two games] in overtime — it could have either way.
“I think we just need to play our game, a fast game. The good thing is we have one game tonight in front of our fans. I think that’s a good situation for us.”
The Hawks will be challenged themselves to beat a desperate team at home. When they faced the Predators in an elimination game in Game 6 of the opening round of the playoffs in 2010, the Hawks led 4-3 after a fast-pace first period. Things settled down after that and the Hawks won 5-3 with John Madden’s empty-net goal in the finals seconds the only goal after the first period. So fast start is imperative against a desperate team like the Predators.
“It’s huge, especially being in their building,” Hawks captain Jonathan Toews said. “We know what type of effort we’re going to get from them in the first 20. It’s something we have to be ready for and try and match. Just to play that patient game and hang in there especially through those moments where they’re flying and they’re throwing everything at you. You just got to stay with it and try and lock things down and not give them too much.”
The Hawks have their own incentive to win Game 5. If they close out the series, they are assured a few days rest before facing the winner of the Blues-Wild series, which currently is tied 2-2.
“You never want to play an extra shift, an extra game in the playoffs if you can avoid it,” Quenneville said. “We know we’ll have a dangerous opponent tonight. this building will be loud, they’ll be hungry and they’re going to come at us. we expect this challenge to be our toughest. let’s try to quiet the crowd as quickly as we can but expect a real hungry opponent. let’s go one period at a time and leave it out there tonight.