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Predators look better, more dangerous than Blackhawks

Tribune News Service • Apr 19, 2017 at 8:30 AM

Puck luck smiled on the Predators in Game 3 when goalie Pekka Rinne needed all 6 feet 5 inches to make a diving stop of Johnny Oduya’s clearing attempt that ricocheted off the boards and nearly skipped into the net.

Good fortune surfaced again for the Preds in the third period when Filip Forsberg scored Nashville’s first goal past goalie Corey Crawford on a weird bounce off a stanchion that revived Bridgestone Arena.

But to focus on the fluky things that helped the Predators overcome the Blackhawks in a 3-2 overtime victory Monday misses the emerging point of this series: Nashville looks like the better, more dangerous team.

They execute more efficiently at both ends, exiting their own zone quickly and entering Hawks territory smoothly. They resemble the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference more than their counterparts, operating at a different gear. The Hawks appear a step too slow, at least a year too old and on the verge of beginning an offseason full of introspection.

It would be much easier if the Hawks could blame injury or inexperience for going 141 minutes without a goal or falling behind 3-0 to the Predators. But chalk the latest problems up to veterans more than rookies. A Marian Hossa turnover in overtime hurt the Hawks. Duncan Keith and Niklas Hjalmarsson suffered key lapses. Oduya lacked zip. Artem Anisimov flubbed key faceoffs. Jonathan Toews still hasn’t scored in a playoff game since the 2015 Stanley Cup Finals — 12 games and counting.

To the surprise and chagrin of many, the Hawks have stopped looking like the Hawks the hockey world is so used to seeing. They reached for the switch to flip when the playoffs started but continue to grope aimlessly in the dark. Besides Crawford, which Hawks player has played up to his potential in all three games? Patrick Kane came through Monday, and Marcus Kruger and Trevor van Riemsdyk performed well, but, overall, consistency on all four lines and the blue line has eluded the Hawks.

A puck-possession team failed to possess the puck when the Hawks needed it most in overtime. Most puck battles during the series have been won by a hungry Predators team that has dictated the pace of every game. Quicker and more aggressive, the Predators never let a 2-0 deficit after two periods shake their confidence as they fed off their home crowd.

A Hawks team that used to intimidate opponents now scares nobody. The Predators have played with a chip on their shoulders, perhaps placed there by past first-round eliminations at the hands of the Hawks. The core of the three-time Stanley Cup champions remains the same but everything seems so different now. It can be as hard to watch as it is to understand about a team that won 50 games in the regular season.

The Hawks are playing as if they forgot everything changes in the playoffs. The Predators have relished reminding them.

The margin for error has become so thin for the Hawks that they couldn’t overcome a close call that went against them for the game-tying goal. Forsberg struck again at the 14:08 mark after Viktor Arvidsson bumped Crawford just outside the top of the crease. Crawford clearly was beyond the blue paint but coach Joel Quenneville used a coach’s challenge looking for goalie interference because Arvidsson appeared to hit Crawford’s mask as he passed.

After a review, the goal stood, likely because the rule states, “incidental contact with a goalkeeper will be permitted and resulting goals allowed, when such contact is initiated outside of the goal crease, provided the attacking player has made a reasonable effort to avoid such contact.”

Hawks fans understandably saw it differently but if the referees concluded Arvidsson “made a reasonable effort to avoid” contact, replays of him trying to spin away from Crawford made that hard to dispute. Or at least overturn.

The Hawks didn’t lose a two-goal lead because officials interpreted one play differently from everybody watching the game in a red Indianhead sweater. They lost for reasons that probably have kept general manager Stan Bowman up the past week even later than NHL start times, reasons the Hawks likely will have to face sooner rather than later.

History says only four playoff teams in NHL history ever have overcome a 3-0 series deficit and little suggests the Hawks are about to become the fifth. The example of the Hawks winning three straight in 2011 to force Game 7 against the Canucks has been referenced, but it bears repeating they lost that game.

The past is becoming harder than ever to use as a resource for a Hawks team quickly aging in front of our eyes. The future suddenly guarantees nothing. Down is up and up is down in the NHL playoffs, where the Leafs and Blues are in the midst of sending a similar message to the Capitals and Wild. How did this happen to the Hawks?

The questions come easily. The answers will be harder to find examining a roster that needs more tweaking than anybody imagined a week ago.

—David Haugh

Chicago Tribune—

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