For the first time in the Stanley Cup playoffs, there is a little pressure on the Nashville Predators.
As the Predators enter Sunday's game against the St. Louis Blues at Bridgestone Arena, they own a 3-2 series lead in their best-of-seven Western Conference semifinal. A victory in front of what's sure to be a raucous sellout crowd assures them their first trip to the conference final.
But what looked like fait accompli a few days ago with the series at 3-1 doesn't seem like such a cinch now.
St. Louis followed up arguably its most complete effort in a 2-1 Game 4 loss with a better one in Friday night's 2-1 victory in Game 5, putting 32 shots on net to Nashville's 22 and looking like the better team in 5-on-5 play for the second straight game.
The Predators know another performance like Friday night won't cut it, not even with the league's loudest playoff audience waiting to erupt.
"We all know we can play better," goalie Pekka Rinne said. "Our preparation leading up to the next game has to be perfect. They've got some life now. It's going to be a fun game."
How much fun this is for Nashville depends on if it can play at the same speed that marked Games 1 and 3, and chunks of Game 2 and 4. The Blues were able to win the neutral zone Friday night, winning physical battles and creating quality chances.
The insertion of right winger Dmitrij Jaskin, who replaced injured Alexander Steen (foot), impacted Game 5 in a manner no one could have forecast.
Jaskin was the best player on the ice for large chunks of his 15:46 of playing time, firing eight shots on goal, adding four hits and blocking two shots.
What's more, Jaskin also collected the game's first goal at 5:43 of the second period, enabling St. Louis to score first for the first time in the series.
"He was really good all game from the start," Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo said of Jaskin. "Brought some energy that we needed. You're happy for a guy like that who gets a chance to come in and has an impact."
Now the question is, can St. Louis replicate that performance in a venue where the Predators have won eight straight playoff games, dating to last spring?
That includes three overtime wins, one last May against San Jose when Mike Fisher scored at 1:03 a.m. in the third overtime to win Game 4 of that series.
Nashville players have spoken during this playoff run of how they can feel the crowd noise through the walls of their locker room. That noise figures to be louder and more passionate with potential history in the making.
"It's got to be desperate," forward Colin Wilson said. "We can't give them any more life. It's a seven-game series, but we want to get it done at home."
The Predators could make a lineup change Sunday. Craig Smith, who has missed the last six games because of an undisclosed injury, skated at practice Thursday and Friday.
One of 12 double-figure goal scorers for Nashville, Smith adds more speed to an already fast team.
Once again, the Blues are teasing their fans with a potential Game 7 at Scottrade Center.
They will be in Nashville on Sunday for Game 6, which begins a little after 2 p.m. at Bridgestone Arena. They trail 3-2 in the best-of-seven Western Conference semifinal series and a win would force a decisive game Tuesday on home ice.
“It’s going to be great,” Blues goalie Jake Allen said. “That building is rocking, always is, it’s fun to play in. I think we get a lot of pride shutting teams down in their building and we’re going to have a huge test Sunday.”
If this seems familiar , it is.
The Blues have gone on the road for a Game 6 in each of the last four postseasons. They have lost on all four occasions, by a combined score of 16-5.
There was a 2-1 loss in LA in 2013, a 5-1 dismantling in Chicago in 2014, a 4-1 waxing in Minnesota in 2015 and a 5-2 drubbing in San Jose in 2016.
This year is different, Blues fans would like to think.
The club had gone 17-4-1 on the road from the time Mike Yeo replaced coach Ken Hitchcock in early February until it opened the series against Nashville on April 26.
“We’ve been good on the road ever since Mike took over and that’s what we have to look at,” Blues forward David Perron said. “We’ve just got to go and win a game and bring it back to St. Louis. I don’t know if we can over-think anything.”
It’s good advice, but easier said than done against the Predators. They have won eight straight postseason home games, including Games 3 and 4 against the Blues in this series.
The back-to-back defeats were the first under Yeo since late-February, early-March, a stretch of 14 contests without consecutive defeats.
The team went 3-0 in Minnesota in the first round, but found Nashville to be a tougher place to play.
“Their crowd is unreal,” Perron said. “They’ve got kind of a smaller rink it feels like and the crowd really gets into it in TV timeouts. Even if we’re outplaying them it almost feels like they are (outplaying us). So we have to make sure that we’re on top of our game at all moments so that we keep the crowd a little bit lower.”
The Blues had a difficult time doing that on their last visit, falling 3-1 and 2-1.
“Obviously, we weren’t real thrilled with the first game in there, Game 3,” Yeo said. “I think Game 4, we didn’t come away with a win, but I thought that started to give us a sense of the way we need to play and certainly we could have won that game.”
Predators goalie Pekka Rinne stopped 32 of 33 Blues’ shots in Game 4. He has given up eight goals in three games at Scottrade Center in this series but surrendered just two, on 56 shots, in the pair of games in Nashville.
“In the first two games that we played there, we did some really good things,” Schwartz said. “(But) we’ve just find a way to beat Rinne, get a little more traffic. In Game 4, we had lots and lots of chances and did a lot of good things. So we feel confident going there.”
The Blues feel that having played two games at Bridgestone Arena this postseason will be beneficial.
“That was the first time we’ve been there in a playoff scenario,” Blues center Patrik Berglund said. “So I think having two games under the belt will help us out a bit going in for the third.”
“I think seeing the difference in our game between Games 3 and 4 was a good indication of that,” Yeo added. “We know what to expect and that will help us, but we have to be ready for the challenge. It’s a real good team that’s going to be hungry to close things out. It’s going to be a fun atmosphere and that’s what, if you want to be successful in the playoffs, you have to be able to go in and win hockey games like this.”
The Blues have not been able to do so in the past four years, but there is one difference this season.
In the previous postseasons, they were tied 2-2 with their opponent in the series and entered Game 6 after a loss in Game 5, all at Scottrade Center. This time, after falling behind Nashville 3-1 in the series, they’ll be coming off a victory at home Friday.
“Not the way we drew (the series) up obviously, but it’s a good opportunity for us to kind of carry the momentum to Sunday and bring this thing back home,” Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo said. “We need to do the same thing we did (in Game 5). We’ve got to stay aggressive. That’s when we’re successful.”
It won’t be as easy, especially in Nashville. But if the Blues can pull it off , the teams will be headed back to St. Louis.
“We still know that we’re in a hole here,” Yeo said. “We feel good about (Friday) night’s game, that’s great. (But) there’s a lot of work to be done, so we have to make sure we’re focused on winning a game. And it so happens it has to be in their building.”
STEEN travels Blues forward Alexander Steen, who did not play in Game 5 because of a foot injury, traveled with the team to Nashville but his availability for the game Sunday remains uncertain.
“If you know his character than you know he’s not going to put our team in a bad situation,” Yeo said. “He’s not going to put himself out there if he’s not able to perform to his own standards, let alone ours.”
With their backs against the wall and without one of their top impact players and key leaders in Alexander Steen, the Blues put together a strong 60-minute effort Friday and ended up with a 2-1 win to extend the series and force a Game 6 on Sunday in Nashville (2 p.m. CT, NBCSN, Y98 FM).
Dmitrij Jaskin scored in his first game in nearly a month and was a force all over the ice, and Jaden Schwartz buried what turned out to be the game-winning goal just 25 seconds into the third period to lead the Blues to a critical victory at Scottrade Center.
The Blues could have looked at the adversity facing them and felt sorry for themselves, but they didn't. That's not what they're made of.
Talk about character. This Blues team has it.
"Whatever happens, good, bad, you have to make sure you're ready to come back and perform," Blues Head Coach Mike Yeo said. "It's one thing to say it, it's another thing to go out and deliver. Those guys did."
"It's huge," David Perron said of his team's performance in Game 5. "But I think, in my opinion, we have to turn the page. We're still in a hole here and we have to provide the same performance (in Game 6) - and hopefully even better."
The Blues find themselves heading back to Nashville in another must-win situation as they try to force a Game 7 in St. Louis on Tuesday. They know winning at Bridgestone Arena won't be easy - it's a tough building to play in with a raucous crowd, and the Predators are the only team remaining in the playoffs that haven't lost a home game this postseason (4-0).
But, having played two close games in Nashville already, the Blues feel more prepared this time around.
"That was the first time we've been there in a playoff scenario, so I think having two games under our belt will help us out a little bit walking into the third (game)," Patrik Berglund said. "They get a lot of energy out of their crowd. But we've got to come out and play a full 60 minutes, same style in my opinion, at least 5-on-5, that we did in (Game 5), and we'll be in good shape."
"We know that we're going to have to be even better next game," Yeo said. "But our guys, we asked them to win one game. Nothing changes for us. It's the same mentality. We have to find a way to win a game in their building.
"We know it won't be an easy challenge for us, but we'll be up for it."
The Blues put on one of their best 2017 postseason performances in Game 5, forcing a return date to Music City. The Blues recorded 32 shots, 31 hits and 25 blocks in Game 5 while they held the Predators to just 22 shots - the fewest they've allowed this postseason. With the victory, the Blues improved to 3-1 in their last four potential elimination games, while Mike Yeo improved to 3-3 in such games in his coaching career. The Blues will look to bring the series back to Scottrade Center for a Game 7 on Tuesday. The Blues were 2-0 in Game 7s last season, beating Chicago in Round 1 and Dallas in Round 2.
What to Watch
Jaden Schwartz has been one of the Blues' top playoff performers, leading the team with eight points (four goals, four assists). Schwartz collected his third game-winner of the postseason in Game 5, joining Jake Guentzel of Pittsburgh for the overall lead. He also became just the fourth player in Blues history to record three game-winners in a single postseason (David Backes, Brett Hull (2x), Scott Young).
Since all three stats were tracked (2005-06), Game 5 marked just the third time that the Blues have recorded at least 30 shots, 30 hits and 25 blocks in a single game (reg + postseason) Dmitrij Jaskin scored his second career postseason goal in Game 5, while becoming the 11th player to record at least 8 shots on goal this postseason Games 3, 4, and 5 have marked the first time the Blues have landed at least 30 hits in three straight games this season (reg + postseason)
This day in history: 1983 Islanders Mike Bossy scores 4 goals in Wales Series Conference Final series clinching 8-4 win over Bruins 1985 Oilers set postseason record with 12th straight playoff win 1993 In Kings 7-4 victory of Canucks in Game 3 of Smythe Division Final, Gretzky scores 2 goals to reach his 100th playoff goal and nets his 19th game-winner breaking the record held by Maurice Richard
_________________ Official LGB sponsor of Robby Fabbri 2016-2017 Season Official LGB sponsor of Colton Parayko 2015-2016 Season Official LGB Sponsor Dmitrij Jaskin 2014-2015 Season
I hope Steen is healthy enough to play. He's been in a walking boot for awhile, so probably has a broken foot. He got hit by a shot on that foot in game 4 and apparently needed crutches to walk after that.
_________________ 2010-2011 Official LGB Sponsor of Kevin Shattenkirk 2016-2017 Official LGB Sponsor of Dmitri Jaskin
I was more worried about Friday than today. We've seen this team get "solved" in the playoffs too many times, so I was a little concerned we'd see a continuation of games 3 and 4. Today will still be tough, but I feel better coming off a win.
It also helps that we scored 2 minutes in.
_________________ 2010-2011 Official LGB Sponsor of Kevin Shattenkirk 2016-2017 Official LGB Sponsor of Dmitri Jaskin
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