Sidney Brown brings his weekly dispatches from the front lines of Chicago Blackhawks fandom every week during the hockey season.
For the first time since 2010, the Chicago Blackhawks and the Nashville Predators will face-off in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Hawks fans may remember that Chicago captured that series in six games thanks to Marian Hossa’s effort in overtime in Game 5. The Hawks went on to win their first of two recent Stanley Cups after clinching that series… could the same result repeat itself?
As Central Division rivals, these two battled close in each of their four games in the regular season, though its been a long lay-off since they last met on the ice, they haven’t played each other since December.
Regular Season Matchup
Oct. 18, 2014 (at Chicago): Chicago 2-1, OT
Oct. 23, 2014 (at Nashville): Nashville 3-2
Dec. 6, 2014 (at Nashville): Chicago 3-1
Dec. 29, 2014 (at Chicago): Chicago 5-4, SO
With a record of 48-28-6 and a third place finish in the Central Division, the Hawks continue their latest glory era with their seventh straight Stanley Cup Playoff appearance, opening on the road for the third time in this stretch. The Predators turned things around for themselves after missing the playoffs the last two seasons.
After firing Barry Trotz, the only coach in franchise history, the Predators turned to Peter Laviloette to create a culture of winning and the team responded with a second-place finish in the Central with a 47-25-10 record, it took them losing six games in a row to finish the regular season to relinquish what was for a time a strong hold on the Central. Nashville will try to use this series against Chicago to turn things around.
With a high-powered offense provided by the Hawks and a tough, defensive-minded Predators squad matching up, two contrasting styles will be on display. Which style will win out and who stands to step up to make it happen? Let’s take a look.
At this position the big obvious news is the return of the team’s most prolific scorer, Patrick Kane, to go with fellow team stars captain Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp. Kane was on pace for a 100-point season until a broken collarbone on February 24th sidelined him for the rest of the regular season. Toews carried the team with 66 to end the regular season points while Marian Hossa led the Hawks with 39 assists.
While Hossa struggled to just netting home 22 goals, Patrick Sharp had a tougher time than usual this season, scoring totaling 16 goals along with 27 assists but expect both to make an impact in these games with their experience and skill. The second line for the Hawks — Brad Richards, Kris Versteeg and Kane — were vital in most the Hawks wins early in the season. Now reunited, more scoring opportunities should be a result.
Nashville has improved its scoring and long gone are the days of this team playing strictly tight/defensive games to keep at arm’s length of their opponents. Picked up in a trade from Pittsburgh during the off-season, James Neal made his presence known, netting home 23 goals and 14 assists while his partner in crime Filip Forsberg led the Predators in points with 66 (37 assists).
Other scoring threats include Mike Ribeiro who was second on the team in points with 62, Colin Wilson and Mike Fisher.
The Hawks have a collective group of defenseman that matches well with anyone in the NHL and heading that class are perennial all-NHL talents in Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith.
This tandem will actually be split up to start this series, but expect the two stars to still make an impact.
Niklas Hjarlmasson, Johnny Oduya, Michal Roszival and David Rundblad are also going to be called on to keep Nashville’s scoring at bay, Oduya and Roszival have seen struggles all season long and will be looked at closely to pick things up.
The Preds are led by perhaps the best defensive tandem in the NHL this season in Shea Webber and Roman Josi. Webber is actually a credit for his offensive ability, scoring 15 goals and 30 assists on the season, but he can and will deliver a big hit to fire up his team.
Josi bested Webber in scoring, netting home 15 goals along with 40 assists. It will be a tall task for the two, but expect Nashville’s top defensive pair to have some highlights against the Hawks’ top two lines. Seth Jones, Ryan Eliis, Mattias Ekholm and Anton Volchenkov are expected to further carry the load as part of Nashville’s other blue line pairs.
The power play has been up and down all season and it took a major nose dive during the time Patrick Kane was lost due to injury. Ranked 20th in the NHL (17.6) at the end of the regular season, the Hawks should get a major boost in this area with Kane’s return to the lineup.
Kane’s presence on the power play opens up the ice others and just keeping it simple with him without turning the puck over should create great scoring chances. Patrick Sharp led the team in power play goals with 8 while Duncan Keith led the team with 13 assists.
The Predators tout a 25th-ranked power play (16.2) and its middling output really played a role in Nashville’s down stretch to end the regular season. Although Nashville can score overall, the man advantage has seen a problem with a lack of creativity, unlike their opponent who can be a bit too creative.
Mike Fisher led the Predators with 7 power play goals while Filip Forsberg led the team with 13 power play assists.
Penalty Kill Percentage
Hawks: 83.4% (10th in NHL)
Predators: 80.8% (18th in NHL)
Corey Crawford has been the standout in net for the Hawks throughout the entire season posting a personal career high in wins with 32 along with a 2.27 goals against average and a .924 save percentage.
Corey’s efforts in goal made him the 2014-15 William Jennings Trophy winner (fewest Goals Allowed Average). The Hawks switch to a defensive approach when Patrick Kane went down with injury and Crawford did not disappoint.
In wins and losses, Crawford made big saves and stood on his head keeping his team in games but the inconsistencies in scoring made some of his efforts go by the waste side. Expect Crawford to be the main storyline as this series begins.
Pekka Rinne managed to collect 41 wins along with four shutouts, a 2.18 goals allowed and a save percentage of .923, despite missing some time due to injury in the middle of the regular season
Even with a balanced attack on offense, Rinne is still known for carrying a team with his stellar play while not allowing many easy goals to go pass him. As it is with most goalies, with traffic in front of them, most are suspect to give up dirty goals and the Hawks should provide a problem for Rinne with the likes of Andrew Shaw and Bryan Bickell on the attack.
If the Hawks fail to respond offensively, Rinne is more than capable of stealing a game or two or possibly a series.
Most of the Hawks roster is healthy for the first time since mid-February and head coach Joel Quenneville will have four solid lines to go at Nashville’s balanced attack.
The return of Patrick Kane will make a huge difference and with Patrick Sharp starting on the third line and Teuvo Treavainen making his playoff debut on the fourth line, the Hawks should have the speed and skill to go right at the teeth of Nashville. If the Hawks can score early and often, that will put tremendous pressure on the Predators and their players don’t have the speed to keep up with Chicago.
On Nashville’s side, the key will be to contain the high-powered Hawks while trying to play a strong defensive style wearing them down as the game goes along. Offensively, if the Predators can put two or three goals on the board with a lead, they will be very tough to beat. Head coach Peter Laviolette will have to come up with the perfect set of match-ups to contain the Hawks’ attack.
This series will come down to goal tending. With both Crawford and Rinne both having playoff experience, Crawford gets the edge in my book because of 2013 and his overall play this season, especially down the stretch to end the regular season.
The Hawks morale should and will be high with the return of Kane and Nashville doesn’t have enough in the offensive tank to keep up with the Hawks who have much more experience in long and explosive playoff series. Talent in more areas of the roster for the Hawks should be enough for them to pull off this first-round series.
MY PREDICTION: Hawks in Six.
Other Playoff Predictions
Winnipeg over Anaheim in Seven *UPSET ALERT*
St. Louis over Minnesota in Six
Vancouver over Calgary in Six
NY Rangers over Pittsburgh in Six
Montreal over Ottawa in Seven
Tampa Bay over Detroit in Five
Washington over NY Islanders in Seven
Follow Regal Radio on Twitter @regalradio1 and on Facebook under Regal Radio and Sidney Brown on Twitter @sidkid80