The Nashville Predators are back in the Stanley Cup hunt thanks to new head coach Peter Laviolette and they’ve drawn the daunted Chicago Blackhawks in the first round. What’s more, Chicago has just announced that forward Patrick Kane will be playing in Game One on Wednesday. That’s great news for the Blackhawks and it means the Predators have their work cut out for them.
This should be a remarkable series on a number of levels and there is some history here, with Laviolette as head coach of the Philadelphia Flyers facing off against Joel Quenneville and his Chicago Blackhawks in the 2010 Stanley Cup Final. Chicago won that series in six games, bagging the first of their two Cups under Quenneville.
Now, Laviolette has another shot at Chicago. He’s behind the bench of a different team, a club rather similar to the Blackhawks in playing style. Both teams are quick and both teams activate their defence to build rushes. Their similarities taper off when it comes to individual considerations, however, and that’s where this series gets interesting.
The Blackhawks have had to survive without Kane in their roster since he went down with a fractured left collarbone in February. At that point, he was leading the team in scoring and seemed set to have a career year with 64 points in 61 games. One wonders what might have been, but one also realizes that the Blackhawks still pulled through without their best player.
It was up to Jonathan Toews to take the lead in scoring – and he did. He put up 66 points in 81 games, but his numbers were still just two points ahead of what Kane accomplished in 61 games. Patrick Sharp also found the scoreboard, while Marian Hossa (61 points) and Brandon Saad (52 points) also illustrated Chicago’s offensive depth.
The Blackhawks have some decisions to make in terms of their second and third lines. Brad Richards has been up and down all year, with just 37 points in 76 games and just two power play goals. He’ll likely see time on the third line, with Antoine Vermette possibly bumping into position on the second line. This could all change of Richards can come out of the gate hot, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
The Predators have been finding offence from various sources. One of the most improbable contributors has been Mike Ribeiro, who was bought out by the Arizona Coyotes in the off-season and is now helping drive Nashville’s scoring. The 35-year-old centre has 62 points in 82 games.
Filip Forsberg is the guy for the Preds and the Ostervala-born forward will be looking for a chance to shine in the post-season. The 20-year-old has 63 points in 82 games, including 26 goals. Forsberg is easily Nashville’s most energetic player and he’ll be the dude Chicago has to contain if they want to shutter their opponent’s offensive openings.
The rest of the forward core is versatile and proportionate, which gives coach Laviolette options. Colin Wilson, Mike Fisher and Craig Smith make up the tight second unit, while Mike Santorelli could see action on any line.
This is an area where the Blackhawks could prove a touch on the vulnerable side. They still have as good a top four as any team in the league with Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Johnny Oduya in the works. And that group will see an awful lot of ice time, with Keith leading the charge. He managed 45 points in 80 regular season games and he’ll be dangerous in every situation.
But then things start to level off. The loss of Nick Leddy has been felt in terms of defensive depth and the Blackhawks have tried different combinations since he was traded away to Long Island. For a time, it looked like Trevor van Riemsdyk was going to do the honours. Injuries took him down and the club had to lean on Michal Rozsival. And let’s not forget that Kimmo Timonen is obviously another story. He can play a certain degree, but how he’ll hold up in the post-season is a big question.
One could argue that the Predators have the edge in terms of the blueline. They can punch the puck in and lead the attack from the back. They have a stellar pairing in Shea Weber and Roman Josi, with the former’s booming shot and the latter’s ability to exploit opportunities. Josi managed 55 points in 81 games, including 15 goals. He’ll see some serious time on the ice in all situations.
Seth Jones and Mattias Ekholm are set for the playoffs for the first time. Jones had the year he was after with 27 points in 82 games. He’s displayed a creativity in building offence from the rush, plus he’s mobile. Ekholm brings a compact physical game and will take some of the tough battles.
Corey Crawford had another good year for Chicago, putting up a .924 save percentage and a 2.27 goals against average. He reached 30 wins for the fourth time in the last four complete seasons, but he did miss 14 games of action due to injuries. That’s where the Blackhawks’ backups come in, with Scott Darling and Antti Raanta proving they can handle the pressure.
The Predators have a healthy Pekka Rinne and that could spell disaster for Chicago. He has a .923 save percentage, a 2.18 goals against average, four shutouts, and 41 wins in his pocket. He’s seen a lot of shots and subsequently made a lot of saves, which may not bode well for the Blackhawks. Rinne is quick when it comes to lateral movement and he’s big, which won’t give the opposition many opportunities to find that yawning cage.
The edge in goaltending goes to the Predators, but Chicago seems to have the advantage in every other category. And with Kane back in the fold, they’ll have even more chances to put rubber on goal. If they can crack Rinne and get under his skin, they’ll take the series. If the Predators can rally around their goalie, they’ll have a shot.