"The most important game in franchise history."
It seems that these seven words are being thrown around so much that they are nearly becoming cliche. While you may be hearing it quite a bit, don't for a second doubt the merit of such statements. Game 4 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals is, in fact, the most important game to date in the Predators' 12-year history. The weight of these words is surely not lost on anyone that's witnessed even half of Nashville's 920-ish competitions, throughout the years. Much new ground has been tread in this postseason, most recently the leading of a series beyond game one. Unfortunately, all of that will be of little consolation if we fall short of the second round for the fifth time in five tries.
The Predators have staged valiant comebacks, memorable efforts, and impressive victories against strong opponents in previous playoff rounds. They've provided difficult tests to teams laden with future hall of famers. Despite those moral victories, they provided little solace as those teams eventually cleaned out their lockers two months short of when they had hoped. The one element that has eluded the Nashville Predators prior to this season is the opportunity to truly take charge of a series. They've never been in a position in which they had an opponent even close to the ropes. Tonight's game represents a firm toss of an opponent toward those ropes, and a promising opportunity to launch them over the top once and for all, in the next game. A quick look at the statistics of a team gaining a 3-1 series lead shows that the chance of advancement is right around 90 percent. While the Predators have always been an antagonist in the face of empirical statistics and conventional odds, those are numbers that they would likely love to have on their side. Such a lead gives the Predators the luxury of 3 tries to win 1 game. On the other hand, a Blackhawks victory would do far more than even the series at 2. Chicago would regain the home-ice advantage lost by splitting the opening games at home, and create a situation in which a win in the Windy City becomes requisite to winning the series. Supposing Chicago wins tonight's game and the next, and Nashville wins game 6 at home, that sets the stage for a game 7 showdown on the road in front of an intimidating 22K+ crowd, eager to see Goliath press David beneath his sandaled foot once and for all. Are such circumstances insurmountable? Of course not, especially for a Preds squad that has shown throughout the season that it's comprised of a balance of skill, moxie, and intestinal fortitude previously unheard of at 501 Broadway. With that being said, wouldn't it be better not to get into that situation? I certainly like to think so, and I'm not sure there's enough Pepto on the shelves at my local Kroger to get me through such a scenario.
The ingredients for victory tonight are no different than in the previous three games, but the emphasis increases with each game. The Blackhawks are a wounded animal, at the moment. They came into this series with a bravado and a regular season pedigree that brought forth a sort of entitled confidence. They were SUPPOSED to coast through the Predators. Three games later, those plans have gone terribly awry, and they're now faced with a game that likely means the difference between rebounding from an early scare and a hugely disappointing ouster. Those wounds, that desperation makes tonight's Chicago Blackhawks a very dangerous team. The Predators were able to feed off the raucous energy at the Bridge on Tuesday night, and cultivate it into a mean, physically punishing first period, rattling the Blackhawks in such a way that they never recovered. They were able to control the pace of the game, and force the 'Hawks to adapt, rather than being forced to adapt themselves. The Blackhawks will be determined not to fall into that trap early in the game, again. They've inserted some sandpaper into the lineup in Adam Burish, and a hulking net presence in Bryan Bickell. These moves are in direct response to deficiencies in the previous games. They've made adjustments, and so must the Predators. However, "adjustment" must not be confused with "abandoning the gameplan." Predators hockey has frustrated the Chicago Blackhawks to this point, and it's Predators hockey that gives Nashville the best chance at completing the upset. If the Preds can continue to thwart the puck-possession of the Blackhawks, if they can continue to refuse speedy transition between the blue lines, and if Pekka can continue to make the big saves when he has to--while the defense limits those "have to" moments--Nashville will prevail, and put themselves in a great position to wrap up the series once and for all.
A few quick notes:
I'm hearing that tickets are moving much more favorably for this game than game 3. TCAPs are over and the 730 start time is a little more palatable for families with school-aged children. That said, if you do NOT yet have tickets, I urge you to get them now! The crowd and atmosphere at the Bridge on Tuesday was among the most incredible I've ever witnessed, and our team deserves no less. The only disappointment were the noticeable gaps of empty seats throughout the lower bowl. I hope to see sellouts from here on out. We're in uncharted waters, and you'll regret missing the chance to be a part of it in person.
According to Tom Callahan (@predsradio) Hornqvist is OUT for tonight, and despite early reports that Brian Campbell would be returning after suffering a broken clavicle nearly a month and a half ago, he is unlikely to play as well.