With Shea Weber in the lineup for their first two first-round games against Chicago, the Nashville Predators have shown they can compete against and beat the mighty Hawks. But without their injured captain during a 4-2 Game 3 loss Sunday at the United Center, the Preds looked very much like a team without its most important player. And those type of teams don't normally win playoff series.
The Blackhawks needed overtime to claw out a 4-3 win in Game 1, and had their assets handed to them in a 6-2 loss to Nashville Friday. But they lost Weber to a lower-body injury (read: a knee or ankle injury) midway through the second period of Game 2, and if you needed any proof as to the 29-year-old's value (or the reason why some of us voted for him as our first choice for the Norris Trophy), it was right there for you to gawk at in Game 3. If he's not back in the lineup soon – and he's not expected back for Game 4 Tuesday – it's very likely his teammates will be joining him on the sidelines for the summer.
It wasn't so much the Predators missed Weber's offense Sunday, although that certainly would've helped them come back from a sub-par outing by star goalie Pekka Rinne. No, what Nashville lacked in Weber's absence was his ferocious physicality and sky-high panic threshold, and the Hawks took full advantage of it, moving through their opponent's zone with impunity most of the game. No Chicago player had to worry about getting waylaid by a brick-wall check from Weber that would send them on a complimentary trip into next week. None had the image of a Weber forearm shiver lingering in the recesses of their mind, making them think twice before rushing into a corner to chase down a puck. Chicago superstar Jonathan Toews was able to run roughshod and impose his will on the outcome. There was not a scintilla of apprehension to be found in the Hawks' attack.
There is no numerical measurement that can document from day-to-day or week-to-week for that intangible element Weber brings, but if you ask players about it, they'll tell you it's there. And it's not the type of thing the Predators can simply snap their fingers and summon by inserting another player in Weber's stead. Chicago has too many weapons with the ability to go off at any moment – Sunday it was Toews and Brandon Saad who stepped up at different moments; in Games 1 and 2, it was Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa; and in Game 4, it could very well be Patrick Kane or Brad Richards – and Nashville can't lock into peak defensive form when their best defender isn't there.
The Blackhawks' defense isn't too shabby either – Brent Seabrook scored Sunday in Game 3, and Duncan Keith scored in Game 1 – but with due respect to those tremendous players, the Blackhawks could probably win games and post-season series if one of them were out of the lineup. I like Nashville's defense corps more than I like the Hawks' group of blueliners, but I don't think you can say the same for the Preds without Weber out on the ice. The Predators without him are like the Canadiens without star goalie Carey Price or the Penguins without Sidney Crosby: capable of winning a period here or a game there, but unlikely to consistently have enough to compete with teams that have better fortunes on the health front.
Some things still have to go the Hawks' way for them to move on to the second round: they need to get good goaltending (and No. 2 netminder Scott Darling came through on that front Sunday with a 26-save effort for his second playoff win) and they need cornerstone players such as Toews to dance around the injury bug. But if Game 3 is any indication, the Predators can only win this series one way: with Weber back in action.
If that lower-body injury is severe enough to keep Weber in the press box even for two more games, that might be all the room the Blackhawks require to strike a death blow to their season. He's that good and that important, and Nashville has never needed him more.