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Blackhawks have Predators pushed to the brink

by David Kalan
(Chicago leads best-of-seven series, 3-2)
Big Story --
After a wild, seesaw victory in Game 5, the Blackhawks will look to close out the Predators in Music City and advance to the conference semifinals for the second straight year.
Team Scope:
Blackhawks --
After four games of struggling to put the puck in the net, the Blackhawks may have finally figured out Pekka Rinne in Game 5. Chicago had scored just seven goals in the series before Saturday's five-goal breakout, but that production comes with a disconcerting caveat.

All five goals were necessary.

Goaltender Antti Niemi had shutouts in both of the Hawks' previous wins in the series, but Saturday the Finnish Fortress had cracks in the walls, surrendering a 3-1 lead that nearly put Chicago on the brink of elimination for Game 6. Instead, Patrick Kane's dramatic shorthanded goal with 13.6 seconds remaining in regulation took Niemi off the hook, but a better performance in net might be needed polish off Nashville.

At the very least, the Hawks may no longer have to worry about their offense. Chicago received word Sunday that Marian Hossa, who has a three-game points streak, would not receive additional disciplinary action for his hit on Dan Hamhuis in the closing moments of regulation in Game 5. Hossa did receive a five-minute boarding major on the play, before eventually scoring the game-winner seconds after leaving the penalty box in overtime. There had been concern the Hawks would have to make do without their prized offseason acquisition in Game 6, but Chicago should have all its bullets in the gun Monday night.

Predators --
Despite the devastating loss in Game 5, Nashville can lean on having shown a remarkable amount of character as it attempts to keep its season alive. The Predators could easily have folded while facing a two-goal deficit in the hostile United Center, but a rally capped by two goals from Martin Erat showed their offense still has some punch even without regular season goal-scoring leader Patric Hornqvist, who has missed the last four games.

Of course, Erat's game-tying and go-ahead scores Saturday haven't overshadowed the fact that he made an errant centering pass in the final minute, which led to Chicago's OT-forcing rush. Had Erat simply kept the puck against the end boards, Nashville might be looking to clinch at home Monday, but coach Barry Trotz has been quick to point out that Erat's mental lapse is hardly the only thing to blame. As a result of Hossa's boarding major, Nashville had nearly four minutes on the power play to open overtime and was unable to capitalize. This is a running theme for the Preds, who have yet to score with the extra man in 21 chances this series. If the Predators don't improve their special teams Monday, their next power play might be in October.
Who's Hot -- Kane's game-tying score in Game 5 wasn't the first time the Preds have heard his name this series. The winger leads Chicago with six points in the postseason. … Erat, too, has been hitting the scoresheet regularly. His four goals are the most of any player in this series on either team.
Injury Report --
Chicago is still without defenseman Kim Johnsson (concussion-like symptoms). … Nashville may be without Hornqvist (upper-body injury), who is still listed as doubtful, while Hamhuis (upper-body injury) expects to play.
Stat Pack -- In Nashville's previous four playoff appearances, the Predators have had the opportunity to keep their season alive in the confines of their home arena. The Preds have been unable to take advantage each time.
Puck Drop --
While Chicago is young, it does have postseason experience from its conference-final run a year ago as well as a killer instinct -- the Hawks closed out both of their first two series in six games last April. As Nashville's rally in Game 5 showed, however, the Predators may be grittier than either of those opponents were. With its season in the balance, Trotz's club is unlikely to come out with a flat performance.

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