The Chicago Blackhawks narrowly missed the top seed in the West, and now have to face the Nashville Predators when their playoffs start on Friday. There’s a marked contrast between these two teams; Chicago has the marquee names, the rich history that comes with being an Original Six team, and has only recently come about after years of woefully inept mismanagement. The Predators, on the other hand, are a lunch-pail crew, one of the NHL’s most recently created teams, and have been carefully and competently run, with one eye on hockey and the other eye on the budget the entire way.
Chicago’s probably the consensus favourite to emerge from the West. They’ve got some issues; their blue-line has some depth issues thanks to injury and their goaltending is a question mark at this point, but they have a dominant team that has a variety of strengths and they’ve controlled the play for the majority of the season.
Nashville’s not really expected to put up much of a fight; they simply don’t have the talent. I’ve got a soft spot for the Predators, though; I grew up watching the mid- to late-90’s Oilers, teams that were as budget-conscious as the Predators, were at constant risk of leaving town, and by necessity adopted the same blue collar style as Nashville plays. A small-time franchise, to be sure, but also well-run and a team that was fun to follow. They also pulled off a few upsets against better opponents, and Nashville has the potential to do the same.
Vital Stats/Points Of Interest: Chicago
- Record vs. Predators: 4-2
- Power Play: 17.7% (16th in NHL)
- Penalty Kill: 85.3% (4th in NHL)
- 5-on-5 Goal Ratio: 1.20 (4th in NHL)
- The Blackhawks lead the NHL in shots for, and also have the lowest number of shots against; territorially, they’re the league’s most dominant team.
- Chicago is the third-best faceoff team in the NHL, with a 52.4% success rate in the circle.
- Chicago was a highly disciplined team; only two other clubs were shorthanded fewer times than the Blackhawks.
- Patrick Sharp is sometimes overlooked as an offensive contributor because of his strong two-way game, but he’s also a scoring threat; at even-strength, only Patrick Kane recorded more points for the Blackhawks.
- On the other hand, it’s tempting to focus on Marian Hossa’s offensive achievements, but he’s also one of the Hawks’ best penalty-killers: his five short-handed goals led the team this season. He also tied for the team lead in plus/minus.
- Dave Bolland might be the Hawks’ secret weapon in these playoffs: last year he finished with 47 regular season points and had 12 in 17 playoff games, but this year he’s missed more than half the season with injury and has only 16 points.
- Mike Green is the best offensive defenceman in the NHL, but he was surpassed everywhere but on the power play by Duncan Keith this season. Keith’s 53 points at even-strength or on the power play is easily the league’s best mark, 12 points ahead of Green and ahead of the total points count of all but four defencemen in the game.
- There isn’t a minus player on the Blackhawks blue-line, which is getting healthier. Brian Campbell is eyeing a playoff return, although Kim Johnsson (plus-7 in eight games) hasn’t begun practicing yet.
- Untested goaltender Antti Niemi is the Blackhawks’ biggest question mark entering the post-season, but he was splendid when asked to handle the starting role in the regular season.
Vital Stats/Points of Interest: Nashville
- Record vs. Blackhawks: 2-4
- Power Play: 16.4% (24th in NHL)
- Penalty Kill: 77.1% (28th in NHL)
- 5-on-5 Goal Ratio: 1.05 (12th in NHL)
- No team in the league has a better winning percentage when leading after one period than the Predators; they win 95.8% of the time.
- The Hawks are highly disciplined, but so are the Predators; they’re one of the two clubs to be shorthanded less often than the Blackhawks. That’s an encouraging trend for Nashville; the less that special teams become a factor, the better for them.
- Nashville’s leading scorer this season was Patric Hornqvist, perhaps the least-known 30-goal scorer in the NHL. It’s been a big step up from last season’s production: two goals. Hornqvist also led the team in plus/minus (plus-18).
- The Predators don’t have a player with more than 51 points, but Jason Arnott played at a 60-point pace when healthy.
- The Predators defence scored 36 goals. 16 of those were scored by Shea Weber, with the Canadian Olympian also scoring 7 of the 11 power play goals recorded by the defence.
- Denis Grebeshkov, who was limited to four games after coming over from injury, could be ready to play as early as the first game of the series. He’ll add a needed offensive dimension to the Predators defence.
- Pekka Rinne will be the Predators starter in the playoffs after an inconsistent season, one where he struggled prior to the Olympics. Since the Olympics, Rinne has gone 12-4-1 with a 0.931 SV% and has recorded four of his seven shutouts. He showed last year he’s capable of high-end performances, and enters the playoffs white-hot.
The Bottom Line
Nashville is one of those teams that has a lot going for it and could steal a series with some help from its goaltender, but the Predators’ special teams have been brutal all year and they’re outclassed at even-strength by the Blackhawks. Predicted Winner: Chicago.