After 8 months of following, cheering, debating, and praying, the playoffs are finally here. Instead of throwing in our outsider’s two cents for every series, we figured it would be better to ask people that know the ins-and-outs of their team like only a hockey blogger would know! To break down the 1st round series in the West between the Chicago Blackhawks and Nashville Predators, we enlisted the help of our own resident HawkNut, Mr. Ryan Hackett, and Jeremy K Gover from Section 303. You might not have all the answers at the end of this—but you’ll have a better idea of some of the hopes and fears of the combatants.
Once you check out what our bloggers have to say, let us know your opinion. Who’s going to win the series?
What do you like most about your team going into the playoffs?
Ryan (Blackhawks): The Blackhawks’ team defense has recovered from some recent bouts of cluelessness. Many people completely undervalued what Brian Campbell brought to the team, and his recent injury has brought that into stark reality. Not only did he carry the mail through the neutral zone and initiate offensive zone penetration, but he contributed much more to the power play than almost anyone gave him credit for. The good thing is, the Hawks seem to have made some adjustments to counteract his absence in the last few games, and should be ready for the post-season. (Dustin Byfuglien, a “golf-clap” in your direction, sir.)
Jeremy (Predators): Goaltending, goaltending, and more goaltending. Pekka Rinne has finally found his stride after a rocky start to his sophomore season. In Preds fans’ eyes, he went from “should-have-won-the-Calder” to “oh great, another goaltending controversy.” Since the Olympic break though, Rinne has been lights out, rarely giving up a soft goal. He’s kept the Predators in games they had no business being in and he’s even got the 12-4-1 record to prove it. It’s no secret that an elite goaltender can get you far in the post season and this year, more than ever, Nashville seems to have just that.
What part of your team scares the hell out of you when you think about the upcoming series?
Ryan (Blackhawks): My last answer notwithstanding, the Blackhawks’ special teams play is the thing that entices me to order a double Chivas on the rocks instead of a single. The playoffs are the time where the talent and intensity are at their zenith, and every mistake could cost a team a game, the momentum, and in turn, possibly the series. However, after being shut out in seven straight games (and going 0 for 18 during that time), the seemingly anemic power play has regained some life in the final two games of the season with a goal in each contest and looking much more like they have a clue what the hell is going on. As for the penalty kill unit, I’m willing to concede that the games against Dallas and St. Louis where the Blackhawks took 5 and 7 penalties, respectively, were aberrations, and not a sign of things to come for this team.
Jeremy (Predators): Lack of scoring. Yes, the Preds have 10 guys with more than 30 points which is tied for most in the NHL. Yes, the Preds are able to score with any line they put on the ice, which most teams can’t say. And yes, the Preds have a defense that can chip in offensively. But what Nashville doesn’t have is a go-to guy. Most teams, when times get tough, can look to a superstar to do what he does best. Example, Pittsburgh can look to Sidney Crosby, Columbus can look to Rick Nash, and Washington can look to… well… about five different guys. The point is, the Predators don’t have a guy to look to if and when there’s a scoring dry spell. Patric Hornqvist bagged 30 goals, yes, but most of those were from the dirty areas, a la Tomas Holmstrom in Detroit. You wouldn’t say Holmstrom is their go-to guy would you? No. A go-to guy is someone who possess a threat to score every time he touches the puck. Someone who makes things happen at any given time. Hornqvist provides a valuable service by taking abuse in front of the net, but certainly when he touches the puck in the neutral zone, goalies don’t piss their pants. Scoring by committee is great and all, but what happens if everyone turns cold? There’s nobody on the roster that Barry Trotz can look at and say “go do what you do best.”
What do you think your opponent has that will cause the most problems?
Ryan (Blackhawks): I can hardly believe I’m saying this about a division rival, but the Predators almost seem to have the element of surprise. Even though the teams have seen each other six times this year, the last time was prior to the day I start apologizing to cashiers for screwing up the dates on my checks. Nashville has certainly grown up since then. The Predators have only two, count them, TWO, 20-goal scorers on their roster in Patric Hornqvist (30) and Martin Erat (21). Yet, they still have sniper Jason Arnott and former Blackhawks J.P. Dumont and (a personal favorite) Steve Sullivan behind them. Oh, I might have forgotten to mention the guy who put one THROUGH the goal at the Olympics in Shea Weber manning the blue line. If you plan your game to shut down one of their top guys, you’ll find yourself watching Joel Ward or Dan Hamhuis bury one behind your likely helpless goaltender. Team defense will have to be on high alert as this Predators team can hurt you from so many angles.
Jeremy (Predators): Chicago wins games by scoring goals. Lots and lots of goals. They played just six games in the month of April, for example, yet found the back of the net 24 times. That’s an average of four goals a game and, let’s be honest, the Preds cannot overcome an onslaught like that game-in and game-out. So, if Nashville can stay out of the box (which they should be able to do considering they were the least penalized team in the league during the regular season), they’ll prevent the Blackhawks from abusing them while they’re a man down. If Chicago’s power play gets rolling though… look out.
What are some of their weaknesses that you’re looking forward to seeing for an entire series?
Ryan (Blackhawks): The Blackhawks can beat the trap. Period. If Chicago comes out showing their teeth and carving up the neutral zone like they very well can (but sometimes fail to do), they will have the Predators on their heels. They need to get the puck deep and follow it up with heavy pressure and high-quality scoring chances and they will get to the inexperienced Pekka Rinne. The Predators have an excellent record when scoring first, and with the home-ice advantage, the Hawks would be well served to take advantage of the natural momentum afforded to the superior regular-season team.
Jeremy (Predators): Antti Niemi has never played a playoff game in his NHL career and, despite his impressive 26-7-4 record, his save percentage (a much more telling stat for goalies) is pretty average at .912. If Nashville can pepper him with shots and get one past him early on, they should be able to rattle his confidence enough to make him his own worst enemy. If Nashville plays the “quality over quantity” card that they’re accustomed to playing, they’ll have to come from behind in most contests with Chicago and that’s never a good idea.
Who wins the series (and how many games does it take?)
Ryan (Blackhawks): My initial instinct is to say Chicago in 6. But my gut then takes over (it was busy digesting dinner) and I say Blackhawks in 5. I think Nashville takes one at home by starting Dan Ellis but in the end is just overwhelmed by the Blackhawks’ potent offense.
Jeremy (Predators): If the Predators throw 40+ shots per game at Niemi, Nashville can win in seven. If they only fire 20-25 puck at him each night, Chicago can bag this series in five.
Which player (either team) has a break out performance?
Ryan (Blackhawks): This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while, and while I wanted to give the nod to Antti Niemi, I just think Chicago’s defense will be strong enough that he won’t have to have a “break out performance” for the Blackhawks to be successful. I will say Dave Bolland. He’s impressed me ever since I saw him at the Training Camp Festival before last season. I think he came back too soon from his back injury this year, and has been pressing ever since. It seems 9 out of 10 shots he takes either soar 3 feet over the net or are shot so hard he shatters his stick in four places. I think getting the goal crashing the net on Sunday against Detroit will settle him down and get him back in his groove. I foresee a multi-goal and/or 3-point game for him in the first round.
Jeremy (Predators): Pekka Rinne can single-handedly win the series for Nashville so, because he’ll basically have to, I’ll pick him.