Three out of the past eight seasons the Nashville Predators have met the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Both times previously the Predators were ousted in six games and the Hawks would go on to win the Stanley Cup Finals.
I’d like to think that that wasn’t a coincidence.
Besides winning three Cups in the Joel Quenneville-era, Chicago’s presence in the playoffs – especially as their opponent – can make some more than a bit nervous. They’re easily one of, if not the most, playoff-experienced teams in the NHL. In a series with home-ice advantage under Quenneville, they’re 11-1.
The only series loss? The 2014 Western Conference Finals against the soon-to-be Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings.
Yet, for all the dominance the Blackhawks have shown in the playoffs, they’re beatable as well.
St. Louis took them out in seven games during the first round just last season. The only other first round exit in recent history came in 2012 against the Arizona Coyotes, where five of the games went to overtime.
It’s not impossible to beat Chicago, even when they’re as dominant of a team as they’ve ever been. But the order? A tall, tall one at that.
On paper, the matchup is fairly close. Six forwards with 40 or more points for the Blackhawks and five for Nashville.
While you’ll see names like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa near the top for Chicago, you’ll also see ones like Artemi Panarin, Artem Anisimov and Richard Panik among the list as well.
Nashville will have to rely heavily on the Filip Forsberg and the unrelenting, yet unexperienced, Viktor Arvidsson if they hope to upset the Blackhawks. Not just that, but they’ll need continuing contributions from Ryan Johansen, James Neal, Colin Wilson, Craig Smith and, most importantly, Mike Fisher.
When looking at the stats, it’s remarkably even. In the playoffs, however, all the stats are reset to zero. And experience is what matters the most.
Edge: Chicago Blackhawks
Shaking up their defense last summer swapping Shea Weber for P.K. Subban, Nashville most likely didn’t expect the change to produce immediate results. Rather, it’s taken the entire regular season for the Predators to truly figure out what they want their defensive identity to be. To an extent, it’s still something they’re struggling with.
Yet, the offensive prowess is still there. Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Subban all had double-digit goal seasons, while all but Ellis, who missed it by two, eclipsing the 40-point mark on the season. That’s the mark of a Peter Laviolette-coached defense, one that activates up into the rush and charges puck-first into the offensive zone.
This is not to say that Nashville can’t keep the puck out of the net, but dropping five of the last seven games prior to the playoffs isn’t very promising – especially when they averaged three goals allowed in each loss.
On the flip side, there are plenty of similarities in Chicago’s defensive core. While highlighted by Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, the remainder of Blackhawks defensemen haven’t necessarily been blazing across the stat sheet. From March 1st until the end of the regular season, they also allowed 2.70 goals per game – higher than Nashville’s 2.42 goals against per game.
What’s interesting about this stat is Chicago is at 0.11 goals per game higher than their total season average of 2.59, compared to Nashville being 0.26 goals per game lower than their total season average of 2.68.
As the Predators have benefited from better defensive play as of late, could they be peaking at the right time?
Edge: Nashville Predators
First, take a peek at the current stat line for the likely series goaltenders.
Corey Crawford: 32-18-4, 0.918 save percentage, 2.55 goals against average, two shutouts.
Pekka Rinne: 31-19-9, 0.918 save percentage, 2.42 goals against average, three shutouts.
Besides Rinne having a statistical advantage with his goals against average, this is probably the closest stat line between opposing goaltenders that you could see coming into a playoff series.
Crawford, who has three Cups to his name, has been through the trials and tribulations of what it takes to win in the playoffs. For what it’s worth, Rinne has been through enough to where he knows what it takes to win, but he’s never achieved the same level of success.
At 34 years old, two older than Crawford, Rinne’s chances of making a deep run in the Stanley Cup playoffs are growing shorter. He’s only won 22 games in 48 career playoff starts.
When Rinne gets on a run, he’s near-impossible to beat. Vancouver had a difficult time beating him in 2011 where he posted save percentages of 0.97 in both games one and two, split between a loss and a win. Same in 2012, when he allowed nine goals in five games beating the Detroit Red Wings and only three in the final three games of a five-game loss to the Arizona Coyotes.
But can Rinne burst forth and give another superhuman performance in what could be his most difficult test to date?
Again, on paper, this is such a close match-up. Both Nashville and Chicago ended up in the bottom half of the league on both power play and penalty kill percentages, with the Predators doing just a shade better on both than their counterpart.
Special teams, however, may determine who ends up winning this series.
Over the course of the final month of the season, both teams ended up in the bottom five of total penalties taken – Chicago with 46 and Nashville with 49. Both power plays weren’t as active either, with the Blackhawks earning 53 opportunities to the Predators 55.
Last time out, Nashville went 6-for-22 on the power play and stopped 16-for-19 on the penalty kill and still dropped the series in six games. This time out, it’s going to take that same effort and more.
Both Quenneville and Laviolette are easily forces to be reckoned with behind their respective benches. On one side, you have a coach who has 801 NHL wins, second-most all time, and three Stanley Cup championships. On the other, you have a coach who is only the second American-born to ever be behind the bench for 1,000 games in the NHL including a Stanley Cup championship.
It’s a story of two amazing hockey coaching careers clashing for the third time in the past eight years.
Quenneville has gotten the better of Laviolette in both previous match-ups, beating the Predators in six games two seasons ago and eliminating the Flyers in 2010, capping off Chicago’s first Stanley Cup championship since 1961.
Two seasons ago, the Predators may not have been as equipped to face off against the Blackhawks as they are now. I believe Laviolette’s had ample time to make his system work in Nashville.
Edge: Chicago Blackhawks
Nashville’s goaltending will be the key to whether they can steal the series away from Chicago. The Predators are fully capable of providing Rinne the goal support he needs to be successful in the playoffs, the only problem is that history isn’t on his side in terms of finding said success.
The plus side of this is that Rinne’s record this season when Nashville scores at least three goals is stellar: 27-1-3. Even in the playoffs, it’s not so bad – a solid 18-8.
Obviously, if the Predators can score at least three goals per game, history deems that Rinne will be in pretty good shape.
But if the offense fails? Rinne will have to steal a couple of games if Nashville wants to escape the first round.
X- Factor (Chicago)
After all he’s done this season, Artem Anisimov seemingly returning to Chicago’s lineup is a huge boost for the Hawks. He’s been out of the lineup since March 14th after Canadiens forward Alexander Radulov fell on the back of his left leg. Notching a career-high 22 goals prior to the injury, Anisimov was tied alongside Marian Hossa with 45 points this season.
If Anisimov is returning at 100 percent for Chicago, then there’s no question how massive an impact it is for the Blackhawks. Anytime you’re getting a 20-goal scorer who is dangerous on both ends of the ice can’t be understated.
There’s a lot to think about in regards to this series. Prior to really digging in, I didn’t necessarily give Nashville much of a chance – initially thinking the Hawks wouldn’t have to take but one trip to the Music City. Now, I think it’s going to be a much longer series than that. In fact, there’s no reason the Predators can’t knock off Chicago in what could possibly be the toughest team in the Western Conference.
The Blackhawks have the experience. They have the big names on their roster. They have three Cups in the past eight seasons. They are the gold standard in the West. The same could easily be said about the Detroit Red Wings a few seasons ago. On the third attempt, Nashville finally knocked off Goliath in five games – topping the bar set in the first years of the franchise.
Now a new bar has been set. And this is the season Nashville kicks that bar right off the rack.