Shrugging off their heartbreaking triple-overtime loss in Game 4, the Predators broke through for three goals against Blackhawks goalie Scott Darling in the first 3:14 of Game 5’s third period and staved off elimination with a 5–2 win at home on Thursday night. Rookie Filip Forsberg, who learned earlier on Thursday that he was not a finalist for the Calder Trophy, tallied the first playoff hat trick in Nashville history, sealing the game with an empty-netter to force another do-or-die Game 6 on Saturday night (8 p.m. ET; NBC< Sportsnet, TVA).
Three thoughts on how the Predators sent the series back to Chicago:
1. Somehow, Nashville finally solved Darling.
The journeyman goalie had nearly dragged the Blackhawks to the brink of the second round on his own, stifling the Predators with an otherworldly .969 save percentage after entering Game 1 in relief of a shaken Corey Crawford and going the distance in Games 3 and 4. Nashville tried to get Darling moving post-to-post early in Game 5 with a pair of dangerous one-timers off cross-ice passes, but the 26-year-old netminder was equal to the task.
The floodgates opened early in the third period. James Neal beat Darling to the opposite post with a wraparound that banked in off the skate of Duncan Keith 47 seconds into the final frame, a scoring chance created by a persistent forecheck from ex-Blackhawk Viktor Stalberg. Colin Wilson extended the lead moments later with his playoff-leading fifth goal on the power play after switching places with Mike Ribiero on a give-and-go that froze Keith. Just 12 seconds after the ensuing center-ice face-off, Mike Fisher found Forsberg all alone on the far circle and the rookie slammed his second goal of the night into a wide-open net to start the celebration at Bridgestone Arena.
There’s no connective stylistic thread between Nashville’s four goals on Darling, but that third-period flurry should be enough to humanize the goalie at the other end of the ice.
2. Key Predators veterans may be healing just in time.
After missing the last three games with a lower-body injury that he sustained in Game 1, Fisher was back at the center of Nashville’s second line and made his way onto the scoresheet with the smooth feed to Forsberg that secured a 4–1 lead. But the Predators fought through a more glaring absence, as captain Shea Weber missed his third straight game with an undisclosed lower-body injury after he had been ruled out well in advance of Games 3 and 4. Nashville proved that it can win without Weber, but its formidable blue line depth becomes less of a sure thing as the stakes rise in Game 6 and beyond.
3. Chicago must make sure what appeared to be a Game 4 hangover doesn’t linger.
After playing over 100 minutes on Tuesday night into Wednesday morning, neither team showed signs of heavy legs in the opening minutes, teaming up for 9:25 of continuous end-to-end action without a whistle before Brad Richards got the Blackhawks on the board in the first period. Richards took a drop-off from Bryan Bickell with a head of steam, curling around Cody Franson to snap a quick shot from the left dot that leaked through Pekka Rinne for his first goal of the series.
But the Predators responded just 75 seconds later, when Forsberg pounced on a loose puck off the draw and surprised Darling with a snipe into the top corner. The home team with its back against the wall went on to dominate possession down the stretch and largely neutralize Chicago’s playmakers.
Patrick Kane drummed up a piece of individual brilliance on a spin-o-rama pass to Versteeg for Chicago’s final tally but was otherwise harassed all night and rarely given space with the puck. The tireless Keith logged a staggering 46:19 of ice time to lead all skaters in Tuesday night’s thriller, and maybe it can be attributed to fatigue that he was the closest defender to the puck on Nashville’s go-ahead and game-winning goals.
Elsewhere, the solid contributions of Matt Cullen, Mike Santorelli and Calle Jarnkrok on the Predators’ third line underscored the hard work Nashville did up and down the lineup on Thursday night to even out the balance of scoring chances and attack the depth of a seemingly tired team that wasn’t playing its best hockey with a 3-1 cushion in the series.