NASHVILLE, Tenn. - The Nashville Predators say their difficult season has made them stronger. They now have what might be their final chance to prove that's true.
They return home for Game 6 on Sunday with the Detroit Red Wings ready to close out this opening series and move on to the Western Conference semifinals. Goalie Dan Ellis, who almost single-handedly stole Game 5 with 52 saves in a 2-1 overtime loss in Detroit, says the Predators are used to the pressure.
"We're a desperate hockey team right now. We've been desperate the entire season. We just put ourselves right back in that same situation," he said. "It's a comfortable situation for us.
"We're back home where we have the advantage of our home crowd behind us to lift us up through those tired moments. We're going to give it every push that we can."
This is a franchise that had to go 5-0-1 down the stretch just to get into the post-season for a fourth straight year during a season in which the team was sold after months of uncertainty and possible relocation.
Detroit, the top-seeded team and the President's Trophy winner, had a 2-0 lead and was less than four minutes from a 3-0 series advantage.
But the Predators bounced back, winning both games in Nashville. And if the home team wins yet again in this series, then Nashville will make history by forcing the expansion franchise's first Game 7.
Nashville forward David Legwand, whose bruised left foot kept him out of Game 5, said the pressure is to simply win.
"Our backs are against the wall again," said Legwand. "After losing the first two, we're here again, and we have to win and extend it to a Game 7."
The Detroit Red Wings know they must play better in Nashville, and they wouldn't mind closing out a physical series without having to go the distance.
"Each player understands that if the shoe was on the other foot, we wouldn't go away easily," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said before the Red Wings left Detroit for Nashville.
This has been a tight series thanks largely to Ellis' outstanding play. He led the NHL in save percentage during the regular season despite having played only one game in the league before signing with Nashville last season, and his .934 save percentage is the highest among goalies who have played at least five playoff games.
Ellis was at his best Friday night, stopping 52 shots before allowing Johan Franzen's backhander 1:48 into overtime. Nashville coach Barry Trotz said they realize they wasted a great performance that allowed them a chance to steal a win, which would have been the franchise's first playoff victory on the road in 10 games.
"They played their 'A' game," Trotz said. "We felt we had another level of game at least to play, and we got into overtime. They've thrown everything at us, and we've hung in there."
Ellis has stopped 198 shots while allowing 13 goals in this series. But the Red Wings have scored only four in the past two games. Detroit forward Tomas Holmstrom said the key is putting pucks on the net to pressure Ellis.
"Keep doing the same thing, it's going to come," he said.
The Predators might be without captain Jason Arnott for a second straight game. He missed Game 5 after becoming violently ill, and Trotz wouldn't speculate if it was related to a concussion, instead comparing it to possible food poisoning because Arnott became sick so quickly.
Nashville's fans have played a key role in providing an emotional lift to the Predators. Trotz has talked about how they are so connected they don't have to be prodded to start cheering, often yelling so loudly his coaches can barely communicate line changes.
The Predators, who had 3,500 fans watch Game 5 on their arena scoreboard, will need that support again because they are 0-3 in elimination games on their own ice. Detroit beat them in Game 6 in 2004, while San Jose needed only five games to knock them out in 2006 and 2007 with the series-clinching wins coming in Nashville.
"If everything goes well, maybe we can take this back to Detroit and get one more crack in the Joe and see if we can get it done there," Trotz said.