After an exhausting triple-overtime loss to Chicago Tuesday, the Nashville Predators were down 3-1 in their first-round series against a Hawks squad comprised of big-game players. Sure, they'd be playing before a supportive home crowd Thursday, but even the best fans on the planet aren't going to beat Jonathan Toews & Co. The Preds needed a statement game of their own, and that's what they got in a dominant 5-2 victory that included a hat trick from star rookie Filip Forsberg and a one-goal, two-point performance from winger James Neal.
Athough it wasn't easy, that part will be a park's walk compared to what lies ahead next: Game 6 Saturday night in Chicago, where rabid fans at the United Center will be pains in their ear, and Hawks players very likely will be pains in their rear. The Predators were unable to beat the Hawks in Chicago in both regular-season attempts and in Games 3 and 4, and one of the deepest Hawks teams in modern history is known for bending and not breaking.
A win is a win, but make no mistake: the pressure is all on Nashville now. They've got an appointment in the viper's pit, and there's enough snakes populating it to give their season a quick and painful demise.
For one thing, the Preds may have to deal with the return of longtime starting goalie Corey Crawford. Scott Darling allowed four goals on 28 shots (Forsberg's third goal was an empty-netter), opening the door for Hawks coach Joel Quenneville to go back to the 30-year-old veteran. Given how poorly Crawford played in Chicago's first two games of this series – allowing nine goals on 38 shots in 80 minutes of action – that may not turn out to be a good thing, but he played solidly for them in the regular season and his return could have the same type of effect Craig Anderson's re-insertion into Ottawa's net has had on the Senators.
For another thing, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane. All of them, the cream of the crop. Each of them talented enough and sufficiently cold-blooded in the face of great pressure to put the final nails in the opposition's coffin in a moment's notice. You might think you're picking your poison, but the ugly truth in this case is, your poison may just be giving you the false sense you have a choice in the matter.
For another thing, Chicago's defense corps: did you know two of the Hawks' top five point producers in this series are blueliners? That's right, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook each have four points – including a game-winning goal apiece. And this is to say nothing of the other weapons the Hawks have at their disposal. Brandon Saad and Brad Richards. Antoine Vermette, and the minute-munching defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson. The young Finn Teuvo Teravainen, and the old Finn Kimmo Timonen. None of them are asked to be the engine for this team, and that lack of pressure makes it more likely one or more will rise to the occasion and chip in a crucial goal or two.
That's what the Preds are up against Saturday: arguably the deepest team in the NHL, in front of some of the loudest fans in the game. And they've got to beat the Blackhawks without captain Shea Weber, whose return from a lower-body injury doesn't appear to be close. With Weber playing, the job would be significantly easier – because although Nashville's players demonstrated they can win without the star defenseman in the lineup, there's a difference between winning without your best player and winning consistently without your best player.
There is no more margin for error for the Preds. The Hawks are too good and too accomplished to be dissuaded from their goals by a lopsided loss like the one they suffered in Game 5. Toews doesn't have the steely temperament of a Bermuda Triangle Airways pilot just because it's fun to only smile once a year. He's made for moments like Game Sixes. This is the chum in his water.
The Preds may yet discover some of their own players are built from a mold similar to Toews, and may well shock the Hawks in their own building to go back home for Game 7 Monday. But if the recent past is any indication and the Hawks get something big from a long list of capable candidates, they've likely played their final game in Nashville this season.