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 forecasted.
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-digit goal scorers for Nashville, Smith adds more speed to an already fast team.