As the regular season has come to an end, Last Word On Sports analyzes every playoff series heading into this week’s action. In the first installment, we take a look at the matchups in five categories: Offense, defense, goaltending, coaching and special teams. We also run down the players to look out for and give our final assessment on how the series will pan out. In the second portion, we will analyze what went down in the series, how the matchups led to the outcome and cover all important storylines.
After two seasons of missing out on the post-season, the Nashville Predators are back and set to take on the Western powerhouse in the Chicago Blackhawks. The last time these two teams faced off in the playoffs was in the 2009-10 Stanley Cup Quarterfinals, following a season where Nashville finished 3rd in the Central division. The Blackhawks defeated the Predators in six games, but Nashville would return to the postseason the following two years, reaching the semifinals in both runs. The Blackhawks have reached the Conference finals four times in the last two years, winning the Stanley Cup twice (2009-10, 2012-13). Their last outing was a Conference finals exit in seven games at the hands of the Los Angeles Kings.
The Matchup: Predators Versus Blackhawks
In the regular season, these two teams met a total of four times, with the Blackhawks holding a favorable record of 3-1-0. They met twice in the month of October, splitting the series, when the Blackhawks won in overtime 2-1, and later followed it up by dropping the next game by a score of 3-2 in regulation. The final two meetings would come two months later, in the month of December, which saw the Blackhawks win both games by scores of 3-1 and 5-4 in overtime.
When it comes to offense, both teams have depth when it comes to scoring goals in bunches. The tandem of James Neal and Mike Ribeiro have put up eight points against the Blackhawks in the regular season, while Colin Wilson has one goal and three assists. It will be interesting to see what rookie and likely Calder trophy finalist Filip Forsberg does in his first post-season after a strong regular season run.
However, the Blackhawks have just as much firepower of their own. Marian Hossa, Bryan Bickell and Brandon Saad all had three points against the Predators, while Jonathan Toews continues to be the leader that the team relies on. With Patrick Sharp and new addition Brad Richards, the Blackhawks have plenty of offense to fall back on, however the uncertainty of Patrick Kane starting in game one on Wednesday leaves certain doubt.
Advantage: Slight Blackhawks
While both teams can play a high offense brand of hockey, the Predators and Blackhawks also have the capability of utilizing their defense to play a smart, shut-down style. Nashville’s top-six has never been better, with Shea Weber and Roman Josi as the top pair, while youngsters Seth Jones and Ryan Ellis make the two remaining duos dynamic. The addition of Cody Franson has been great for moving the puck out of the defensive zone, as well as some additional offense on the back-end.
But they do have tons of competition as the duo of Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith continues to be a force, while Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson are both great on the blue line as well. Keith led the team in points against the Predators this season with four assists, while also maintaining a plus-six rating.
In a battle of proven playoff performer in Corey Crawford and a likely Vezina finalist in Pekka Rinne, the series ensures tons of high calibre goaltending at both ends of the ice. After returning from injury last season and just missing out on the playoffs, Rinne returned in grand form and finished the season with 41 wins, second to just Carey Price in that category. Rinne also finished top-ten in shots against, saves, save percentage and goals against average.
Crawford repeated his 32-win season from last year and has the playoff experience needed to propel a team deep into the playoffs, but at times Crawford has struggled. It all comes down to whether or not Crawford turns on playoff mode, and if Rinne can continue to be the monster he’s been all season long.
Joel Quenneville is no stranger to the playoffs. With two Stanley Cup rings already, the Blackhawks head coach looks to add to his total as he appears in his 17th post-season as a coach, having missed the playoffs just once in his career. While he may have the luxury of being behind a talented bench, his stylistic approach of two-way hockey and a strong transition game has turned the Blackhawks into one of the best teams in the league, over the last 7 years.
Meanwhile, Peter Laviolette has pushed his team into the playoffs in the first year of his tenure with the organization, however he too has some playoff experience. As the head coach of the 2010 Philadelphia Flyers, Laviolette’s high octane strategy paid off with a Stanley Cup finals appearance, where they dropped the series in six games after Kane’s overtime goal sent the city of Chicago into hysteria.
Since both teams possess excellent scoring prowess, you’d expect at least a half-decent powerplay out of both of them, however Chicago and Nashville finished in the bottom half of the league while on the man advantage, at 20th and 25 respectively. Nashville’s biggest achilles heel this season, through all of their success, has been their lacklustre powerplay, which you’d expect more out of the juggernaut that is the Blackhawks. On the penalty kill, Chicago is a top-10 team, with an 83.4% efficiency rate, while the Predators find themselves in 18th, with an 80.8% efficiency rate. It makes for an interesting story whether the Predators can solve their consistently bad powerplay against a strong Chicago penalty kill unit.
Who To Look Out For
For the Blackhawks: Patrick Kane
The 26-year-old winger was on a tear once again this season before suffering a broken clavicle, forcing him out of the line-up for the remainder of the season. Kane’s playoff performance over the years has been remarkable and he’s the biggest X-factor on the team. The question is: Will he play? Chicago Tribune has listed him as “progressing very well,” so if he manages to make the first round and play, the Blackhawks will be in a comfortable position to take this series.
For the Predators: Colin Wilson
The Greenwich-native enjoyed his best season statistically, scoring a personal-high 20 goals and 42 points. Playing well at both ends of the ice, Wilson led the team in plus-minus with a plus-19, while reducing the amount of giveaways to 32 in 77 games. Averaging just over 16 minutes of ice-time per game, Colin has been solid when adding secondary scoring, both at even strength and during his time on the powerplay as well. With all the dominant offensive players already in the line-up, Wilson’s additional scoring will come in handy when things tighten up against the Blackhawks.
In a series where things are so tight at all three positions, this may all come down to specialty teams and how the goaltending plays out. On paper, the offense and defense of both teams are on par with one another, and the goaltending duel should provide for some close action. We also have the privilege of seeing some excellent tandem duels, whether it’s Josi-Weber against Seabrook-Keith or Toews-Richards against Ribeiro-Neal. For the Predators to succeed, they need Rinne to remain in form, while the Blackhawks hope for their star in Kane to make an return that is earlier than expected and provide that offensive punch that he has brought to Chicago in previous years. With the series set to take off this Wednesday, one thing we can all expect is one very entertaining first round meeting between two teams that can play well in all three zones. The Predators versus Blackhawks series is sure to deliver. All things considered, my prediction is Blackhawks in 7 games.
Series Predictions From Our Hockey Department:
Shawn Wilken: Blackhawks in 7
Ben Kerr: Blackhawks in 6
Dave Gove: Blackhawks in 6
Matthew Ricks: Blackhawks in 5
Charlie Clarke: Blackhawks in 6
Tyler Shea: Predators in 7
Ken Hill: Predators in 7