Game Time: 8:30PM Central
TV/Radio: CSN+ (Ch. 201), NBCSN, SN360 (Anglo), TVA3 (Franco), WGN-AM 720
Opryland Season Pass: On The Forecheck
After 101 minutes of hockey that spanned Tuesday well into Wednesday, the Hawks are at long last in a position to advance in the post season. And that opportunity presents itself tonight in the form of the Nashville Predators once again at Bridgestone Arena.
In Game 4, the Predators finally got the sterling performance they had been looking for from goalie Pekka Rinne, stopping 45 of 48 shots he faced, good for a .938 for the game and two-thirds. It was the most saves he had been asked to make since stopping 36 against the Rangers on March 2nd, and it still wasn’t enough. Rinne has never looked comfortable this series, stabbing at pucks and not absorbing them cleanly. But he is still fully capable of taking one game on his own, particulary at home, as evidenced by his post to post save in the dying seconds of regulation against Marian Hossa, his most difficult of the series by a wide margin.
By all accounts he’ll still have to do so without captain and top defensemen Shea Weber keeping the oncoming hordes at bay. Weber once again did not participate in the Preds’ morning skate and has not skated at all since being felled mid way through game two. Given that his exact injury remains a mystery, it’s not completely out of the question for Weber to try to Wes Unseld his way through tonight given the stakes, but it would still be surprising. Barring those circumstances, it will once again be Seth Jones with Weber’s usual partner Roman Josi taking the top assignments for Peter Laviolette. Jones has shown that he is already a force to be reckoned with, and after a disastrous game 3, he and Josi have found more of a rhythm together. The Preds have gotten their most consistent push from Cody Franson since he’s re-entered the lineup, so Laviolette will likely be giving him the benefit of some heavily sheltered zone starts with last change at home.
It also remains a mystery whether Mike Fisher will be able to go tonight, as he once again took part in this morning’s practice. Naturally there is misinformation abound, but if Fisher were to go tonight, it would be his first game action in nearly a week, and he’d be charged with keeping pace with the Toews line. Additionally, noted carbuncle Colin Wilson also missed practice this morning, and Laviolette would not divulge further information about why or his probability for the game tonight. But his absence would create yet another sizable hole in the Preds’ forward group.
As for our Men of Four Feathers, as is customary, there are not expected to be any lineup changes from Joel Quenneville following a win. Whether or not that means Kris Versteeg is to remain relegated to fourth line detail with Marcus Kruger and Andrew Desjardins remains to be seen. Moving Bickell up alongside Richards and Kane from the third period on through 2+ overtime periods created the push the Hawks needed from that line and ended up manufacturing Brent Seabrook’s deciding goal, so it stands to reason that that’s at least how things will start out tonight. That means Andrew Shaw will be on a wing with Antoine Vermette and Patrick Sharp. This will be the first time Vermette will be in the lineup in Nashville, and if Mike Fisher is able to play, his usage will be key in keeping the Ribeiro line at bay.
The Hawk blue line figures to remain the same as it has throughout the series, with Keith and Seabrook babysitting their respective elderly partners until the late goings if the game is close. This move paid dividends for the Hawks in Game 4, with only Duncan Keith skating north of 40 minutes for the Hawks with 46, whereas Nashville’s entire top four (Jones, Josi, Ellis, Ekholm) all skated 40 plus. And if they can get another competent performance out of Rozsival tonight on the road, the less Quenneville has to chase matchups and potentially force bad changes. But that’s a huge “if”.
Scott Darling gets the opportunity to be the fourth goaltender in the Quenneville era to win a series tonight, which is somewhat staggering. Darling has obviously been fantastic during bonus hockey, but some of his rebounds coming off his huge pads have been grabber-inducing. To this point the skaters in front of him have collapsed to the slot well enough to keep an average-sized Nashville forward corps from pouncing on them, but keeping them cleaner is obviously ideal.
There has been a lot of concern regarding the workload the Hawks have put Darling (and Crawford previously) through with the number of shots they have given up, but they are well ahead in the actual possession battle, both from game four and in the series as a whole. In all situations the Hawks attempted 105 shots to just 78 for the Predators during game 4, and currently hold a 53.2% share at even strength over all four games. The primary difference has been the amount of shots that Nashville has blocked, whereas the Hawks as a team do not sell out to block any and all shots coming towards the goalie. With both Crawford and Darling, they have two large, technique-based goalies whom they trust to absorb the puck if they can at all see it. But it’s the absorption aspect of things that Darling still needs a little work on.
In their brief playoff history, the Predators are 0-7 when faced with elimination, never once extending a series. Under Joel Quenneville, the Hawks have only lost once in a non-game 7 situation when given the opportunity to end a series, that being Game 5 against Vancouver in 2010 at home. Even if the Preds are able to get Mike Fisher back, his former Senators teammate Antoine Vermette now helps balance the matchups still back towards the Hawks’ favor should Shea Weber remain out. Do not allow this team up off the mat. End it tonight. Let’s go Hawks.