For the second game in a row, the Nashville Predators were fighting for their playoff lives. After demolishing the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 5, the series returned to United Center where the Preds had yet to pick up a win.
The Preds roared out to a two-goal lead before half of the United Center fans were back from the beer lines, thanks to Mr. James Neal. Patrick Sharp put the Hawks on the board, before Matt Cullen restored the lead. Scourges of the Earth Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane erased that lead, and the first period ended even.
Then Chicago took control of the game. They threw everything at Nashville and the Preds were holding on for dear life. Pekka Rinne kept them in the game, and they finally started to mount a counter attack in the third period. Unfortunately, they got caught in their zone for one too many shots, and another Duncan Keith dagger ended the Preds season.
Nashville just could not find a way to mount a comeback and the series ended after six games.
- The cliche in a playoff game is the visiting team weathering the first 10 minutes of the game in their opponents building. James Neal was having non of that, and weaved through the offensive zone, shooting through three Blackhawks players with a gorgeous backhand to put the Preds on the board first. It was his 3rd of the playoffs, all of which have come in the last three games.
- The Hawks did a fantastic job of containing Neal in Game 3, and a decent job in Game 4, goal aside. 7 minutes after opening the scoring, Neal notched his second of the game. Jumping out to a 2-0 lead less than halfway through the first period is gigantic in any contest. More so when you're facing elimination.
- It turned out to be important, as Patrick Sharp cut the lead in half two minutes later. But before you could say "comeback" Old No. 7 himself gave the Preds their insurance cushion back.
- Unfortunately, and stop me if you heard this before, that cushion would be gone by the time the first period ended. Jonathan Toews redirected a shot from Sharp to score on the power play, and Patrick Kane evened the game with six seconds left in the frame. Chicago won 18 faceoffs to Nashville's 12 in the first period, and even though those are overrated at time, Paul Gausted losing an important defensive-zone draw led to that goal. Damn.
- The biggest positive to come from the first period was the Predators continuing their dominance of Scott Darling. Though Darlin was a brick wall in the first four games, he's now given up six goals in the last period and a half. He lasted only 11:16 before getting the hook in favor of Corey Crawford.
- Crawford hadn't played a hockey game since Game 2, so the game plan should have been to pepper him with shots early and often. That's the opposite of what happened. Almost like the Blackhawks didn't trust Crow to make any saves, they kept the play in Nashville's zone constantly, pressuring Pekka Rinne and wearing out their shooting sticks. The Preds had 10 total shot attempts in the second period.
- Pekka Rinne didn't look like himself in the early stages of this series, but has returned to form lately. Despite allowing three goals in the first period, he was under siege in the second period and stopped all 12 shots he saw. Chicago launched 21 total shots in Rinne's direction, and very well could have run away with the score had he not stood tall.
- The Predators stormed out of the gate in the 3rd period, but then became a victim of what was hurting them the entire game. The Blackhawks pressured and pressured and pressured the Predators in their own zone for almost a minute. Finally, a Duncan Keith seeing-eye shot made it's way into the back of Nashville's net. 4-3 Chicago with time running out.
- It may not be fair to blame Viktor Stalberg for not getting the puck out of the zone before that Keith goal, so I'll just walk away.
- Watching the replay of Cullen's near miss is going to hurt for a few days. He was a few inches away from putting his team ahead, and Stalberg was a step behind to try and pick up the puck and put it into the wide open net. Ouch, my heart.
- And that did it. With barely three minutes left in the game when Keith scored his goal, the Predators couldn't mount a comeback. The series ended in six games, and the Preds go home for the summer.
Ultimately, poor second periods and blown leads doomed the Preds to start their summer a little earlier than everyone wanted. We'll have a lot to unbox and sift through over the coming days and weeks, but for now, let's appreciate everything that happened this season. Even though they limped into the postseason, and were so close to forcing a Game 7, remember where the team was in September.
Thanks to all of you for sticking with us. We'll see you soon.
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