It’s not often a team pulls their starting goaltender in the first period and goes on to win the game. It’s twice as rare that a team does it twice in one playoff series and skates away with two wins, let alone the series victory. Somehow, though, that’s exactly what the Chicago Blackhawks managed.
Early in the first period, the Chicago defense crumbled under the pressure from Nashville and Scott Darling, chosen to be the Game 6 start over Corey Crawford, was bombarded with quality scoring chance after quality scoring chance, surrendering three goals on 12 shots in 11:16. After the run of goals by the Predators – they were up 3-1 with less than 10 minutes remaining in the first period – Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville yanked Darling in favor of Crawford. From that moment on, Chicago controlled the play.
First, it was Jonathan Toews scoring a deflection goal off of slap-pass from Patrick Sharp and then, with six seconds left in the first period, Patrick Kane rocketing a one-timer past Nashville netminder Pekka Rinne to tie the score at three.
After Kane’s goal, the two teams played conservatively for most of the next two frames, but late in third period Duncan Keith broke the tie with a shot from the blueline that found its way past Rinne.
What had been the story of the series was the Predators’ inability to put the Blackhawks away when ahead. Had they closed the games where they were ahead – games 1 and 6 – the series would have been tied heading back to Nashville with Chicago reeling from two straight losses. Instead, the Blackhawks, who erased 3-0 and 3-1 deficits, are heading to the second round to face the winner of the series between St. Louis and Minnesota.
Call it what you will, but the playoff experience may have been the difference maker for Chicago. When the Blackhawks were down early, they never failed to pull games even or, at the very least, fight to make them competitive for brief moments. While no one can deny the lengths to which games 2 and 5 got away from Chicago, there were times throughout the series, and even those two games, when the Blackhawks looked as dominant as they have all season.
Going forward, if Chicago can clean up the issues they’ve had exiting their zone and moving the puck into the neutral zone without giving their opponents second or third chances, there’s no doubt about the ability this team has to produce quick-strike offense.
Sharp had a tremendous series against the Predators, Brandon Saad showed some of the ability that is bound to land him a sizeable raise this off-season and Marian Hossa was fantastic at both ends of the ice even if he hasn’t scored in nearly 20 playoff contests. Throughout the lineup, Chicago has the weapons to win the Stanley Cup, but Nashville exposed them defensively even if it was a series the Blackhawks won before it went the limit.
If Quenneville can figure out a way to better his team’s defensive zone play, it wouldn’t be farfetched to picture another Stanley Cup in the Windy City.