Thirty National Hockey League teams play 82 regular season games. The reset button is hit, and just 16 teams qualify for the playoffs. By June, one team will hoist the Stanley Cup. It takes a magic number of 16 victories to earn the year-long rights to the most sacred of trophies in all of professional sports. Recent winners include last season’s LA Kings, who will not be playing postseason hockey this season, losing a berth in the final week. Another team that has recently won a Cup are the Chicago Blackhawks, in 2013. It would be wise to give a team like that the credit that they deserve, as many players who partook in said 2013 celebration continue to toil for the team and its coach, Joel Quenneville.
Our local heroes the Nashville Predators return to the postseason after a two year absence, and they are faced with the task of lining up against these Blackhawks, who took three of four games from the Preds in the regular season. Both teams come into this seven game series relatively healthy. Chicago’s star forward Patrick Kane, thought to be out for at least the entire first round with a collarbone injury, will return for Game One. This may be bad news for Nashville, who seemed as if it might have found the psychological edge it needed, with Kane’s absence, to truly believe it could dispose of the Hawks easily and effectively. Now, the scales of justice may have swung against them, but this is why they play the games!
Nashville comes into the postseason reeling with six consecutive defeats to end the regular campaign, having lost the Central Division title to the St. Louis Blues and coming perilously close to losing home ice advantage at the same time. Chicago however, was also iffy down the home stretch, losing their last four contests, scoring just five goals in that span.
Corey Crawford (Chi) vs. Pekka Rinne (Nash) – Don’t expect to see a lot of goals scored in this series, which means that the spotlight will shine brightest on the nets. Crawford and the Hawks had the second stingiest defense in the NHL this season, allowing just 2.3 goals per game. Rinne and the Predators were matching them save for save for most of the season, until the last month collapse brought them down to a still-respectable ninth in this category, allowing 2.5 goals a game.
In short, both teams feature tremendously skilled skaters, and a few natural goal scorers, but both goaltenders have world-class resumes that indicate no shortage of highlight reel saves in the series.
Advantage: Rinne, but Crawford has won a Stanley Cup, so he’s hardly at a “disadvantage” here.
Two years ago, Chicago boasted the finest top 6 defense in the league and rode it to the Cup. Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Johnny Oduya and Michal Rosival remain from that squad, and are joined by veteran and former Predator Kimmo Timonen, as well as young David Rundblad. There’s no shortage of skill in that group, although the top five guys are two years removed from said Cup and have played an awful lot of tough hockey since their big win. Timonen, acquired from Philadelphia, missed a good part of the season due to blood clots and is just now rounding into game shape.
For Nashville, the offense starts with the defense, and the top tandem of Captain Shea Weber and partner Roman Josi have to be prime targets for the Hawk coaching staff, drilling into their players that these two can not be given open lanes to create opportunity. Josi finished as the fifth highest scoring defenseman in the league, and he and Weber each potted 15 goals. Seth Jones had a solid sophomore season, and Ryan Ellis continued to improve, despite missing 24 games with injury. Mattias Ekholm solidified his position as a second-pairing defenseman, playing steadily at both ends of the ice. Acquired at the beginning of the trade deadline, blueliner Cody Franson stepped in and played a regular role over the final couple of months, but he was sidelined in the season finale, and there is no final word as to his status going into Game One. Veteran Anton Volchenkov hits hard, and he has years of playoff experience, is a capable fill-in, and was successfully paired with Jones for much of the first half of the regular season.
Slight Advantage: Chicago, by virtue of playoff experience. This will be Jones and Ekholm’s first foray into the postseason. Ellis played just three playoff games in 2012. Josi was pointless in his 10 games in 2012 and will be counted on heavily in this series.
Hawks Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, both 26 years old, both two-time Stanley Cup winners and Conn Smythe Trophy winners (MVP postseason: Toews 2010, Kane 2013) -not a lot more needs to be said. Logic dictates that they should be the two best players on the ice. They will clearly be the two guys Nashville has to neutralize. If Kane is not 100 percent healthy, his ice time may be limited, but he will surely hop over the boards any time Chicago is put in a power play situation.
The supporting cast includes veteran names like Hossa, Richards, Sharp, Versteeg and Vermette, all of whom bring skill and leadership to the table. Again, the Predators feel a bit less experienced, but they will still rely on veterans like James Neal, Mike Ribiero, Mike Fisher, Paul Gaustad and 38-year old Matt Cullen, who was part of Coach Peter Laviolette’s Cup winning team in Carolina (I know there’s no place called Carolina!) back in 2006.
After touting Filip Forsberg as the potential front-runner for the NHL’s Calder Trophy (Rookie of the Year), he may actually have fallen out of the top three nominees, with Ottawa’s Mark Stone making a huge late season push to join Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau and Florida’s Aaron Ekblad in the hunt. Forsberg does step onto the postseason stage with an opportunity to show off his all-world skills. He regularly electrifies the home crowd and will be central in the Predators offensive plans. Additionally, for Nashville, 18-year old Kevin Fiala has been recalled from Milwaukee, and he may be slotted into the lineup for some infusion of new blood. Fiala played one game for the Predators late in the season and impressed fans, coaches and teammates with his skill-set.
Advantage: Blackhawks. I mean, come on… I’m root, root, rooting for the home team, but Kane? Toews? Yeah, they don’t walk on water, but when said water is frozen, they are a lethal combination!
I am sure of one thing. I don’t know what’s going to happen each time the puck is dropped. The Predators and their fans have waited for close to three years since they had the chance to once again contend for the Cup, and while most critics are dismissing their chances, I believe that on any given night Pekka Rinne can steal a win, Forsberg, Neal or Josi can score a big goal, Shea Weber can deliver the thunder, and the other 14 guys can make big contributions. For that, I say that tonight, one team is going to end a losing streak that realistically ended with the regular season anyway. Tonight, we are one with the Preds, one with the Gold, one with the singleness of thought that the Cup is up for grabs, and may the strongest arms prevail. Follow us: Twitter, Facebook and follow me on Twitter – I’ll be cheering loudly along with the rest of the Preds Fans!