NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Nashville Predators are being optimistic, just as they have all season in their improbable run to the playoffs.
Yes, they blew the chance to go up 3-2 in their opening-round series with the Chicago Blackhawks along with the opportunity to return home to clinch a trip to the Western Conference semifinals for the first time in the franchise’s history.
Worse, it all happened with 13.6 seconds left. Nashville blew a 4-3 lead while on the power play in the final seconds of regulation, then lost 5-4 in overtime Saturday.
“This game is certainly difficult, the hardest way to lose as possible,” Nashville defenceman Dan Hamhuis said Sunday. “It’s going to take a little bit more to rebound from it. Sometimes when things go really bad, you bounce back even harder and come out with a better effort again.”
The Predators really have been close to this position a few times already this season. The closest to this gut-wrenching loss came March 11 in San Jose. There they blew a 4-2 lead and lost 8-5 after giving up six goals in the third period.
Nashville rebounded with a 1-0 win at Anaheim the next night.
Goaltender Pekka Rinne said this latest loss was almost devastating. Coaches held a quick meeting at the airport after returning to town trying to help the Predators make a clean break with that loss and start gearing up for Game 6 on Monday night.
“We need two more wins. It’s pretty simple, and it starts tomorrow night. Just looking forward to that,” Rinne said.
Blackhawks forward Marian Hossa avoided a suspension from the NHL for his hit on Hamhuis and will be in the lineup for Game 6.
NHL disciplinarian Colin Campbell conducted a hearing with Hossa on Sunday and decided that no further penalty would be assessed. Hossa was spared, in part, because he is not a repeat offender.
Hossa shoved Hamhuis from behind into the boards Saturday and drew a major penalty late in regulation that carried into overtime. Hossa returned to the ice and scored the winning goal on his first shift back, giving Chicago a 5-4 victory and a 3-2 series lead.
Hamhuis said Sunday that he is sore from the hit, but expects to play in Game 6 at Nashville on Monday night.
Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said earlier on Sunday that he was hopeful that the five-minute major was severe enough.
“He plays hard but physically. I think he’s smart in those areas. I think his track record will verify that,” the coach said.
Nashville coach Barry Trotz said he trusted the NHL to make the fair decision. He also noted Hossa gave his Predators plenty of time during the power play to finish off the win, opportunities they didn’t take.
The Blackhawks now have an elimination game, and they won both of their series a year ago in Game 6, beating Calgary on the road and Vancouver at home to clinch. Center John Madden, who won two Stanley Cups with the New Jersey Devils, said he thinks they need to put the Predators away quickly.
“You don’t want to give anybody a second chance or it will come back and bite you. So the way I’m looking at it is we have to go in there and win this game. I’m not looking ‘Oh we’ll be back in our building for Game 7’ or anything like that. We got to go in and this is the game we got to take,” Madden said.
A big key will be Chicago’s ability to continue killing penalties. Nashville is 0 of 21 on the power play in this series, a drought that reaches 1 of 40 against the Blackhawks counting the regular season. Madden said they’re seeing the Predators try new approaches trying to score that first power-play goal this post-season.
The Blackhawks also expect the Predators to come out flying.
“It’s in their building, and they’re fighting for their lives,” Madden said. “It’s an elimination game and if we win, they’re out. So they’re going to come out and going to be at their best. I think we have to be at our best in order to even compete with them.”
Nashville has never extended a series when trying to stave off elimination at home. The Predators lost Game 6 to Detroit in 2004 and 2008 with Game 5 losses to San Jose in 2006 and 2007?all here.
That might be why Trotz took it easy on his Predators on Sunday with only a handful hitting the ice to loosen up. Others kicked a soccer ball in a hallway while he talked to reporters about this latest test of his team’s character.
“We’ve got to get it done (Monday) and see if we can take it back to Chicago. If we’re able to take it back to Chicago, I think our lesson’s learned. I think we’ll be a pretty strong team going in,” Trotz said.
AP Sports Writer Rick Gano in Chicago contributed to this report.