Monday April 20th, 2015

CHICAGO – Down the left side of the ice sped Jonathan Toews, mostly unbothered, with Nashville Predators defensemen back on their heels. This was about six minutes into the third period on Sunday, and this was not the first time the Chicago Blackhawks captain found himself so unattended. Toews then whipped a shot on net. The puck disappeared beneath goaltender Pekka Rinne, and moments later it reemerged on the other side, creeping toward and nearly across the red goal line.

Circling behind, Toews frantically pointed at the disc, calling the officials’ attention to what might have been yet another salvo from Chicago’s energized top line. But there had been a whistle. Thus there would be no goal. And thus you had Nashville’s best fortification against the forces mustered by the Blackhawks’ stars at the United Center: An arguably overeager referee and a technicality.

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There are unsolvable problems. As dutifully optimistic as players and coaches will sound, some ills cannot be remedied. Not having Shea Weber is one of them. The absence of the Predators’ all-universe blue-liner was splashed all over a 4-2 loss to the Blackhawks in Game 3 on Sunday, as Chicago emerged with a 2-1 lead in this Western Conference first-round series primarily due to the production of players Weber is assigned to help stop. In theory, any team can survive an injury to its most important player. In practice, you imagined Nashville coach Peter Laviolette watching one jet-fueled rush after another and looking down the bench for his captain, only to turn back with a sigh and a desire for a stiff beverage.

It’s unadvisable to let even a drop of blood into the water around Chicago and its rapacious attack. Losing Weber to a lower-body injury for at least Games 3 and 4 was the equivalent to drawing a plasma bath. The Blackhawks approached Sunday with the ferocity required in such a situation, and now it’s a question of the Predators rounding up enough bleach to clean this up before it gets messy beyond reclamation on Tuesday night.

“You’re facing the best defenseman in the league,” Blackhawks winger Marian Hossa said. “When he’s not there, we have to take advantage of it. That’s what we did tonight.”

Toews, Hossa and winger Brandon Saad comprise Chicago’s top line. Typically, they’ll see Weber and partner Roman Josi as often as possible. On Sunday, they didn’t see Weber at all. The result was two goals, three assists and a combined plus-6 rating between them. Josi and Weber’s top pairing stand-in, Seth Jones, were on the ice for both scores and were a minus-6 overall. This wasn’t a coincidence. That line hadn’t been totally nullified leading up to Sunday–Toews had a goal and two assists coming in, and Hossa had a pair of helpers–but the regularity with which Chicago’s top line attacked and received ineffective resistance was something new to this series.

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If replacing Weber requires a collective effort, that effort produced a collective groan. “He’s a big presence against the top line,” Predators center Mike Ribeiro said. “But other than that two, three shifts they had in the second period, it’s pretty even and could have gone any way.”

Yes, other than the handful of shifts that decided the game, other than Hossa dropping a terrific pass that Toews buried for a goal, other than Saad bullying his way to a blue line steal and subsequent score down the other end, other than Toews working behind the net to feed defenseman Brent Seabrook for a two-goal lead, it was plainly an up-for-grabs afternoon.

Other than Chicago’s most influential weapons influencing the outcome in a specific way Nashville’s premier defender is best equipped to deter, nothing to see here.

“They have some dangerous players,” Rinne said. “They made a difference tonight.”

In a sense the burden now shifts to the Blackhawks to ensure that continues in Weber’s continued absence.

From here, Chicago doesn’t have to be brilliant as much as it must be brilliantly consistent. Scott Darling may have settled the unease in the net with a 31-save effort. And after blowing its first two leads of the series in a combined 58 seconds on Sunday–the echoes of “Chelsea Dagger” hadn’t even subsided by the time Nashville answered the Blackhawks’ first and second goals–Chicago applied some urgency and kept it applied from the second period on.

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Though it was not without flaw, this was the Blackhawks’ most complete effort of the series, and avoiding a dip in effectiveness or efficiency might be enough to stave off a Predators team without the player who anchors everything. As ever, this starts at the top. Hossa in particular came out possessed Sunday–the championship belt awarded to the Blackhawks’ top player rested beside his locker stall after the game–and that set a standard his linemates followed. “The first two games, we knew we weren’t good enough,” Saad said. “We played good enough to just get by. But we wanted to create some offense and create some chances here.”

“They had real good cycling, used one another, used their defensemen, put a lot of heat on (Nashville) throughout the game,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “Whoever is going to be out there against them, you want to make sure you do what you did today, because it’s what we were looking for.”

That leaves the Predators looking for answers and, perhaps, finding a yawning empty expanse wherever they cast their eyes. Nashville has what it has in Chicago, while what it needs is somewhere back in Tennessee. As he should, Laviolette maintained his team can play better, that it will search for solutions before Tuesday as it attempts to even a series that threatens to get away from it.

Sometimes, though, no matter what you do, there’s only one way to fix things. Otherwise, they stay broken.

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