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Staving off the sweep or closing out in four: what to watch in the crucial Game 4s

Four series are on the cusp of sweeps, but they're not over yet. What must each trailing team do to win four straight and what needs to happen for the leading teams to close out in a hurry?

Over the past five seasons, a grand total of six playoff series have been decided in four games. That’s not just accounting for first-round match-ups. No, all told, of the 20 playoff rounds and 75 best-of-sevens that have been played since the start of the 2011-12 post-season, only six have been over in four games. And that’s why the first round this time around has been so unbelievable.

Over the weekend, two teams, the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets, were pushed to the brink of elimination in their first-round tilts by their respective opponents, each dropping their third-straight games to start the post-season. It took only one additional evening for two more teams to join the near-sweep club, though, as both the Chicago Blackhawks and Calgary Flames watched leads slip away and quite possibly their playoff lives along with it.

But the thing is that the same storyline isn’t permeating through any of the series that are on the cusp of being swept and there’s not a single fanbase of a team down three-zip that’s about to write off their respective club. So, with four series pushed on the verge of a conclusion, what should we watch for as one team tries to stave off elimination and the other seeks to advance to the second round?

Nashville Predators leading Chicago Blackhawks

Quite possibly the most surprising of all match-ups that are currently being led 3-0. That’s not because the Predators aren’t capable — they’ve proven they’re more than able against these Blackhawks — but because many picked Chicago as either a Western finalist or the conference’s representative in the Stanley Cup final. Amazingly, this series almost has the feel of one that’s set to end in four at this point. Monday’s game, which saw the Blackhawks holding a 2-0 edge entering the third period, may have been Chicago’s best chance at victory.

How Chicago Comes Back: Chicago needs to find a way to break down the defensive shell that Nashville has created. The Blackhawks haven’t been able to create any sustained attack, with the Predators’ patient approach through the neutral zone thwarting most clean zone entries and forcing Chicago to chip-and-chase rather than attack with speed. Also, the Blackhawks need to change the way they exit the zone. The Predators have closed off the boards and the result has been sloppy zone exits, repeated turnovers and more than a few dicey moments for the Blackhawks.

How Nashville Closes Out: What is there to be said that the Predators aren’t already doing? Nashville is getting great goaltending from Pekka Rinne, their defensive structure is absolutely dumbfounding Chicago’s attack and offensively the contributions are coming from all over the roster. The Blackhawks have scored two goals all series while the Predators have seven different goal scorers. Keeping that depth scoring alive is going to be key to finishing this series up in four, though, because you can expect to see a lot of Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brent Seabrook in Game 4.

St. Louis Blues leading Minnesota Wild

One upset in the Central Division? OK, that’s not so hard to see. But if the Blues can hang on to down the Wild in four games — or five, six or seven, honestly — it’d see the two Western Conference favorites heading home in the opening round. You can probably count the number of people who saw that coming on one hand. As far as the so-called “reverse sweep” goes, though, there may not be a series with as much potential as the battle between the Blues and Wild.

How Minnesota Comes Back: Every single game of the series has seen the Wild dictate the flow of play, dominate the scoring chance battle and get into position to earn themselves some Grade-A scoring opportunities. The difference has been Blues goaltender Jake Allen, though. However, there’s no secret to beating Allen. Minnesota simply needs to continue shelling the St. Louis netminder and hope he starts to show some cracks. Traffic and lots of rubber on net could see a few pucks squeak through and one win is all it might take for the momentum in the series to really shift.

How St. Louis Closes Out: Allen has been the Blues’ MVP, but now is the time for some of St. Louis’ firepower to find the net. Jaden Schwartz has a pair of goals and Alexander Steen has three points, but a big game out of Vladimir Tarasenko can turn any game on its ear. You know it’s coming, too. Tarasenko is too good, too impactful, to be held out of the goal column for a long stretch of time. A few power play opportunities and an untimely mistake and we could be looking at a game where St. Louis’ star power ends this series before Minnesota gets rolling.

Anaheim Ducks leading Calgary Flames

If the Flames go home early, some downright rotten puck luck is to blame. In Game 2, an unfortunate deflection off the skate of Lance Bouma resulted in Anaheim’s game-winning goal and Game 3’s overtime-winner for the Ducks came when a save by Brian Elliott bounced off of Michael Stone’s backside and into the net. Breaks can’t come much worse than that, and Calgary now has the tough task of winning four straight when at least two of those wins will have to come in a building they haven’t won in in what feels like a lifetime.

How Calgary Comes Back: The dominant performance that came in the first half of Monday’s game is going to have to be duplicated, triplicated and quadruplicated just for the Flames to have a shot at a seventh game. In the first two periods Monday, Calgary had the bulk of possession at 5-on-5 and doubled Anaheim up in both scoring and high-danger scoring chances. If they can keep that up and get a couple of game-stealing performances from Brian Elliott, this series could end much closer than the current score would indicate.

How Anaheim Closes Out: While the Flames need Elliott to stand tall, the Ducks need to ensure they put pressure on the Calgary netminder. Given the way his season has gone, putting a lot of pressure on him after a tough outing might be enough for him to show a few cracks. Anaheim has yet to have that one overwhelming performance from start to finish and getting that in any of the subsequent games should be enough to turn a 3-0 series lead into a trip to the second round. That’s especially true if Corey Perry’s two-point performance in Game 3 helps him come alive offensively.

Pittsburgh Penguins leading Columbus Blue Jackets

There were questions about the Penguins coming into the post-season, especially after the injury to Kris Letang and the sudden loss of Matt Murray to a lower-body injury ahead of Game 1. These are the defending Stanley Cup champions we’re talking about, though, and Pittsburgh is on the cusp of making short work of the Blue Jackets after the best season in Columbus’ history. Getting back into the series is going to be tough for coach John Tortorella’s club and their chances at clawing back are going to be damaged greatly by the loss of stud rookie Zach Werenski for the rest of the playoffs.

How Columbus Comes Back: It’s going to start and end with the ability to shut down Pittsburgh’s stars. Through the first three games, the Penguins top players have feasted on the Blue Jackets’ defense. Pittsburgh boasts three of the six players currently tied for the scoring lead, making it all the more clear how important a defense-first mentality has to be for Columbus. From there, the Blue Jackets need to make the most of any opportunities that come their way. Marc-Andre Fleury showed cracks in Game 3 and if Columbus can metaphorically rattle his cage, maybe the offense starts coming more consistently as the series hits Games 5, 6 and 7.

How Pittsburgh Closes Out: Continuing to utilize the depth of the roster is going to be key. If the Blue Jackets focus in on Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, coach Mike Sullivan has to find a way to ensure Phil Kessel can at least get loose for a few opportunities or spread his offense as evenly as possible. Targeting the loss of Werenski by forcing Columbus to rely on their defensive depth can give Pittsburgh the edge it needs to give this series, one that was expected to last a little longer than it appears it will, even greater sweep potential.

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