CHICAGO (AP) — It smacks of desperation. And it’s more a hunch than a real strategy.
But when pressed, most coaches will admit few things motivate pro athletes better than embarrassing them.
Ask the Chicago Blackhawks, who overcame another big first-period deficit and then a goalie swap for the second time against the Nashville Predators. The result was another 4-3 win Saturday night that closed out their first-round playoff series in six games and left Chicago awaiting the winner of the Minnesota-St. Louis matchup.
As they had for most of the series, the Blackhawks started sloppy and paid the price. Predators winger James Neal notched two quick goals, and then teammate Matt Cullen picked defenseman Duncan Keith’s pocket along the left boards and put Nashville ahead 3-1 just past the midway mark in the first.
Chicago coach Joel Quenneville, experiencing something very much like deja vu, had seen enough. In the opening game of the series at Nashville, he pulled Corey Crawford after he gave up three goals on just 12 shots and replaced him with rookie Scott Darling. The Hawks roared back from a 3-0 deficit to win in double overtime.
After Darling started Game 6 by surrendering three goals on the same number of shots, Quenneville pulled the switch again. Chicago didn’t need any extra periods to shake the Predators this time. It was 3-3 by the end of the first.
“It’s never a situation you want to be in, but you might be right that it’s a wake-up call,” Chicago captain Jonathan Toews said. “We know we can’t hang our goaltenders out to dry the way we have numerous times in this series.”
“But when we get that first or second goal, especially at home,” he added, “I think there’s that feeling across our lineup that we can take control of a game.”
Before that could happen, though, Crawford needed a confidence boost of his own. He came in cold with just less than nine minutes left in the first and almost immediately faced a high whistling shot from Neal.
“The first one clipped my glove and went off the post,” he recalled. “Then I settled down and started seeing pucks a lot better.”
Apparently, so did his teammates. Other than that wrister by Neal, they didn’t allow Nashville another shot on net for the next four minutes. Keith, a perennial Norris Trophy candidate, was clearly embarrassed when Cullen, a 38-year-old veteran, went through him like a revolving door for the Predators’ third score.
He got his revenge in the third, using some deft stick-handling to end a cat-and-mouse duel with Nashville defenseman Seth Jones near the left boards, freeing up enough space to rip a slap shot that beat netminder Pekka Rinne high on the stick side at 16:12.
“You don’t want to have to rely on something like that,” Keith said, referring to the goaltender swap. “We’re a proud team and any time you get drilled the way we did, you know it’s not their fault. … At the same time, we knew there was lots of time left. So we used it as a kind of reset.”
The Predators will have the entire offseason to examine what happened. They earned home-ice advantage in the first round by finishing second — a place ahead of Chicago in the Central Division — but suffered a major blow early in the series when defenseman Shea Weber went down with a lower-body injury. They also played without forward Mike Fisher for a large chunk of time,
Afterward, coach Peter Laviolette wasn’t in the mood to look back at his first year with the team.
“It’s probably a better question for another day,” he said.
“The objective was to get to this point,” Laviolette added a moment later, “but that wasn’t the whole objective, so disappointing right now.”
That was obvious from the mood in the Predators’ locker room. Rinne was still replaying some of the tougher chances that beat him, wondering what difference a save or two might have made.
“Throughout the series I felt like some of the games, the puck had eyes,” he said. “You look at least three games, the winners … just find a way through the maze and, obviously, that feels disappointing. … You feel like maybe you get a break one of these games and it hits something and it doesn’t go in.”
“It’s frustrating,” he said finally, “but now I have way too much time on my hands to think about these things.”
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