CHICAGO – They ran the pregame video montages and screamed through the national anthem as usual. Then, at 8:45 p.m. on Tuesday night, they dropped the puck at the United Center for Game 4 between the Blackhawks and the Predators. It was 1:16 a.m. on Wednesday when Brent Seabrook raised his arms as a last burst of noise wrapped around him, a celebration of deliverance and relief.
It was a blast from the point for the Chicago defenseman that snuck through a screen and into the back of the net. It was a 3-2 win for the Blackhawks, one minute into a third overtime period, the instant when one team’s toil is something to build upon and another’s turns to ash. It was a commanding 3-1 series lead for Chicago. It was the longest game in Nashville franchise history. It was among the 50 longest games ever played under the NHL banner. It was something else, all right.
“That might have been the biggest,” Seabrook said after a deep breath, when asked how that score ranked among his career game-winners. “It was a long game. It’s a late night. It’s nice to be done with that one.”
It began as a weeknight hockey game without the capacity to clinch or settle anything. It ended as a four-and-a-half-hour ordeal, the weight of which crashed hard upon Nashville. Once again, the Predators were without their captain and top defenseman, the injured Shea Weber. Yet they eradicated the inconsistencies and slip-ups from a Game 3 loss and were more than commendable along the blue line in Game 4, mostly limiting the Blackhawks’ stars that got loose two nights earlier.
And goaltender Pekka Rinne, so shaky in his team’s two previous losses, was the reason Nashville had a chance until Seabrook’s howitzer blast found its way through in the third extra period. Rinne saved 49 of 52 shots overall and was spectacular in the overtimes, stoning glorious scoring chances from Chicago’s Brad Richards and Andrew Desjardins.
His best work was done when he was at his most under-equipped: Rinne’s own teammate, Mattias Ekholm, knocked the stick out of his gloves late in the extra period. The Blackhawks pounced. Defenseman Duncan Keith crashed in for a feed on the doorstep from winger Patrick Sharp. But Keith still couldn’t beat the stickless Rinne. And when Chicago twice went on the power play in the second overtime, Rinne again stifled everything the opposition flung at him (which wasn’t all that much, to the dismay of whatever was left of 22,014 at the United Center).
It was just before midnight, in fact, that the game puck itself snuggled up somewhere in the underbrush of his equipment, undetectable to both the goaltender and a game official frisking him like an overzealous TSA agent. Rinne indeed came close to making the Predators’ worries, and just about everything else, disappear. “Pekka was really good tonight,” Nashville coach Peter Laviolette said. “Made some big saves when we needed him to. I thought our team played hard. I thought we played well. We had more than enough looks, more than enough opportunities to end the game. Like I said, we just couldn’t get that final one to break.”
That is the problem, of course, with the brutish caprices of playoff overtime hockey. One stroke makes a series seem inevitable for one side and irretrievable for the other.
Four Nashville defenders logged 40 or more minutes, and four Chicago defenders skated out for 50 or more shifts. The Predators dished out 66 hits, the Blackhawks 50. Both sides paid the same toll. Only one left the building early Wednesday with a vise grip on the series itself. “Your eyes and brain get a little fried from being zoned in for so long,” Blackhawks goalie Scott Darling said. “Physically, you’re sweating out pounds of sweat. Your feet are in skates for five, six hours. It doesn’t feel too good. It’s a long, grueling game. It’s a great one to be a part of. Just thrilled with the outcome.”
A game pressed upon the Blackhawks hard all night, but it lifted them afterward. Asked about his immediate postgame plans, Darling deadpanned, “Eat. Sleep.” When a media member said he guessed that Chicago wouldn’t hold a practice later Wednesday before departing for Nashville, coach Joel Quenneville cracked, “Good guess.” Because of their good fortune, the Blackhawks could afford good humor. The value of this victory was the sense of utter control and invulnerability it engendered. The two teams made it abundantly clear that everyone at Game 4 would be there a while, but the ultimate result suggested this playoff engagement might not be so enduring.
Game 5 comes Thursday. Nashville has precious little time to convince itself it has answers. What the Predators mustered in Game 4 was more than good enough but insufficient in the end, while their similarly depleted and dead tired hosts felt no pain.
“I feel better now that we got the win,” said Chicago winger Brandon Saad, whose third-period goal precipitated the overtimes in the first place. “It’s definitely draining. But it’s hockey.”
It was a long, long night. And at its conclusion, a series was getting too late for one side, awfully quick.