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Nashville Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne, of Finland, makes a save during the first period of game 2 of an NHL Western Conference semi-final Stanley Cup playoff hockey series action against the Vancouver Canucks in Vancouver, B.C., on Saturday, April 30, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward (Jonathan Hayward/CP)
Nashville Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne, of Finland, makes a save during the first period of game 2 of an NHL Western Conference semi-final Stanley Cup playoff hockey series action against the Vancouver Canucks in Vancouver, B.C., on Saturday, April 30, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward (Jonathan Hayward/CP)

ROY MacGREGOR

Predators face playoff extinction Add to ...

It's lonely here at Death's Door.

Not my phrase - but their own words for the situation the Nashville Predators find themselves in as Saturday night in Vancouver looms as a possible, some would even suggest probable, end to their short Stanley Cup playoff run.

Head coach Barry Trotz used the phrase in his press conference after Thursday's 4-2 loss that put the Canucks up 3-1 in this best-of-seven second-round NHL series.

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"We dug ourselves a hole," Trotz said. "But we've been in a few holes this year."

True, but not likely as deep and as exhausting as this one. Just look at Patric Hornqvist as he sagged on Death's Door late Thursday, the last player still in the Predators' dressing room, sitting there with his equipment still on and sweat beading from a night of incredibly hard work, ultimately futile.

"Our top guys have to get going," he said to no one in particular.

And here, unfortunately, lies the rub. There are no top guys to get going. The Predators are hockey's anomaly as it can be fairly said - even if a tad harshly - that this is a successful NHL team without a "top-six" forward in the lineup.

It is, in fact, a team of grinders, of good honest soldiers short on weaponry. The most-skilled among the forwards is likely late-season addition Mike Fisher, who would make a superb third-line checking centre on any of the elite teams in hockey but is expected to play a Sidney Crosby/Vincent Lecavalier-like role here. It just doesn't quite work, no matter how hard a good player like Fisher is willing to work.

This weakness was on long display early Thursday when Nashville was given a 5-on-3 power play and simply frittered it away with bad passes and an inability to finish.

"It wasn't a very good 5-on-3," team captain Shea Weber conceded. "A game like this, you've got to score."

"If you don't score on a 5-on-3," a frustrated Trotz said, "you don't win the game most time."

What Nashville has, by Trotz's admission, are three "special" players. Three alone. And those three are found in the south when the greatest needs lie in the north: Defencemen Weber and Ryan Suter, and goaltender Pekka Rinne.

Weber and Suter are two of the best defenders in all of hockey; Rinne might at the moment be the best goaltender in the game. But hockey games are won, scoreboards throughout the ages have proven, by which team has the largest number of goals up in lights.

"Maybe have to do it from the backend," Trotz suggested.

Maybe, but up against a team like Vancouver this is a tall order. The Canucks have had their own high-standard goaltending from Roberto Luongo - despite the number of tying goals that have come in third periods - and a strong defence. Most importantly of all, however, they have more "top-six" forwards than a lineup can hold.

They also have Ryan Kesler, the best player in this series by a long stretch and the one who has scored the winning goals the past two games. Kesler's third-period winner on Thursday was the perfect illustration of the driven player who simply will not be denied.

"Right now, he's their best player, bar none," Trotz said.

But Kesler is far from their only good player: Alexandre Burrows has played splendidly, and the Sedin twins, Daniel and Henrik, seem to be finding their usual success after being frustrated by the hard-working and determined Predators in the earlier games.

When Henrik Sedin scored into the empty net Thursday, Hockey Night in Canada calculated he had gone 481 shifts without a goal.

"I keep my shifts short - that's why there was so many of them," Sedin said, laughing if off. Still, that someone was counting shows the spotlight the Sedins' lack of production had come under.

It is because of such skilled players as the Sedins that the Predators must play a game that is methodical, stifling and, sadly, torturous to watch. Their only hope lies in staying close and praying the Canucks will make a mistake or, has happened, a puck will glance off a skate and past Luongo.

Even given such skill imbalance, it's hard to look ahead to Game 5 and pull out that annoying hockey cliché: "The fourth game is the hardest to win."

Hardest to watch might be more accurate, unless the Canucks can find a way to open matters up. If they do, the matter will be quickly settled. If they cannot, it will be yet another game where fluke will matter as much, perhaps more, than finesse.

It has created a series without heat - a rarity in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Whatever tension exists is found far more off the ice than on, with Trotz and Canucks counterpart Alain Vigneault clawing at each other over whether or not players are using "embellishment" to draw penalties. Such debate is hardly riveting, but it's all there is.

The real embellishing, some will now say, is coming from Trotz when he puts on his bravest face and tries to explain why he still has absolute faith that his plucky, star-starved team can pull off what seems impossible.

"Because I've seen it," he said. "I could give you coach talk and say we're never out of it, but I've seen it all year. I've seen it when our backs are against the wall."

And that's exactly where they are now.

Against a wall with a door no one wishes to step through.

Follow on Twitter: @RoyMacG

 

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