Sidney Brown provides dispatches from the front lines of Blackhawks fandom every week during the hockey season.
If the calendar says April and the weather is turning, it means that it’s time once again for the NHL’s annual tournament to decide it all – the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The 2016-17 Chicago Blackhawks finished the regular season atop both the Central Division and Western Conference with a 50-23-9 record and are primed to make another run at their fourth Stanley Cup in eight years.
Their opening round opponent is a familiar division foe in the Nashville Predators, who finished their regular season with a mark of 41-29-12. History is on the side of the Men in Red as they have defeated their Tennessee rivals twice in postseason play (2010, 2015) with 4-2 series wins on each occasion.
In this year’s confrontation, the Hawks and Predators come in with similar styles on offense along with solid play from their defensemen. The Hawks may have the experience but Nashville can give the Cup contenders trouble and possibly extend the series to the limit if Chicago gets caught looking in the other direction.
With the Hawks having the bragging rights from winning the season series that may only be a cold comfort, as we all know when the puck drops for the opening game of the playoffs, it’s a whole different game.
Hawks vs. Predators (Regular Season)
10/14: CHI 2 @ NSH 3
10/15: NSH 3 @ CHI 5
12/29: CHI 2 @ NSH 2
1/8: NSH 2 @ CHI 5
3/4: CHI 5 @ NSH 4
Goals: NSH (13), CHI (20)
Power Play: NSH (5-16), CHI (6-15)
Shots Per Game: NSH (32.6), CHI (27.6)
Faceoffs Won %: NSH (52.5), CHI (47.5)
Here’s an in depth breakdown of the key elements for the third installment of this first round series:
Everything starts with the veteran core for Chicago, led by captain Jonathan Toews (21 goals, 37 assists), Patrick Kane (34G, 55A) and Marian Hossa (26G, 19A). Adding to the success this season has been their young core making major strides with Ryan Hartman (19G, 12A), Nick Schmaltz (6G, 22A) and second year star Artemi Panarin (31G, 43A) becoming a household name for Hawks fans.
Beyond that group, the key player to pay attention to is Artem Anisimov (22G, 23A). After missing the final 18 games of the regular season due to a lower body injury, Anisimov returns to the lineup where he anchors the second line with Kane and Panarin with an intention of winning faceoffs and creating traffic in front of the net. Richard Panik (22G, 22A) will be another key factor playing on the top line assisting Toews and the rookie Schmaltz.
Nashville has goal scorers that can keep up with the Hawks in Viktor Arvidsoon (31G, 30A), Ryan Johanssen (14G, 47A), Filip Foreserg (31G, 27A), Mike Fisher (18G, 24A) and James Neal (23G, 18A). Their secondary scoring consists of Colin Wilson (12G, 23A), Calle Jarnkrok (15G, 16A) and Craig Smith (12G, 17A). While this group can create goals, if they think that they can beat Chicago in a track meet, just like the rest of the league knows by now, they’re setting themselves up for 60-some minutes of disappointment.
Brent Seabrook (3G, 36A), Duncan Keith (6G, 47A )and Niklas Hjalmarsson lead the blue liners for the Hawks as they try to contain the Predators top scoring lines. The return of veterans Bryan Campbell (5G, 12A) and Johnny Oduya gives Chicago much needed depth on defense as well as on the penalty kill. The D group must help out Corey Crawford in clearing pucks and not allow multiple rebounds.
After the trade of Shea Webber in the offseason, the Predators found their star defenseman in PK Subban (10G, 30A) while Roman Josi (12G, 37A) became the team’s top overall defenseman with his stellar play. Ryan Ellis (16G, 22A), Mattias Ekholm (3G, 20A) and Matt Irwin (3G, 11A) round out the rest of the blue liners for Nashville and will be called upon to try and stop the high-flying Hawks.
Special Teams (Regular Season Stats)
Penalty Kill Percentage: Hawks — 77.7 (24th in NHL); Predators — 80.9 (15th in NHL)
Power Play Percentage: Hawks — 18.0 (19th in NHL); Predators — 18.9 (16th in NHL)
Power Play Goals: CHI — Artemi Panarin (9); NSH — Roman Josi and Mike Fisher (7)
Power Play Assists: CHI — Patrick Kane (16); NSH — Ryan Johanssen (9)
Corey Crawford (32-18-4 record, 2.55 GAA, .918 SV%, 2 shutouts) will be given the nod for the Hawks despite his struggles against Nashville two years ago. Crawford has been the man when healthy all season long and with his experience in net plus two Stanley Cups, expect a turnaround performance.
If not, Scott Darling (18-5-5 record, 2.38 GAA, .924 SV%, 2 shutouts) will be ready but unlike two years ago, Scott will have more game experience under his belt.
On the other side, Pekka Rinne (31-19-9 record, 2.35 GAA, .923 SV%, 1 shutout) has experience as well but he can be beat as the Hawks proved in their previous two series victories. Rinne may be called upon to steal a game or two in this series should the team struggle scoring goals. If that’s the case, summer vacation for the Predators will be starting sooner rather than later.
This series will come down to special teams play — both the power play and penalty kill and, of course, goaltending. Nashville has a balanced roster unlike in years past but unlike a year ago when the St. Louis Blues eliminated the Hawks from the first round, the Predators don’t have enough to keep up or stop Chicago offensively.
Chicago has the overall experience along with the motivation of being eliminated in the opening round a year ago. If the Hawks impose their will from the start, this series will be over in a hurry.
Prediction: Hawks in five (4-1).
Game 1: @ Chicago — Tonight, 7 pm (CSN, NBCSN)
Game 2: @ Chicago — Saturday, 7 pm (NBC)
Game 3: @ Nashville — Monday, 8:30 pm (CSN, CNBC)
Game 4: @ Nashville — April 20, TBD
Game 5: @ Chicago — April 22, TBD
Game 6: @ Nashville — April 24, TBD
Game 7: @ Chicago — April 26, TBD
*All times central
2016-17 Regular Season Statistics
Points: Patrick Kane (89)
Goals: Kane (34)
Assists: Kane (55)
Penalty Minutes: Ryan Hartman (70)
Goals Against Average: Scott Darling (2.38)
Goals Per Game: 2.9 (9th in NHL)
Goals Against: 2.6 (11th in NHL)
Power Play Percentage: 18.0 (19th in NHL)
Penalty Kill Percentage: 77.7 (24th in NHL)
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