As part of the Predators-Blackhawks coverage we'll be bringing to you all week, OtF was recently able to 'sit down' for a chat with fellow SB Nation blogger and Hawks expert Sam Fels from Second City Hockey.
You're probably familiar with the 5 Questions feature we ran several times during the regular season, but in true playoff form, we've upped the ante to 10 - with a little wrinkle. Dirk threw out five questions for Sam, and I took the other five.
After the jump, who's stepping into Chicago's defensive void, lots on Antti Niemi, Marian Hossa, and just how good is the Blackhawks penalty kill?
1. With Campbell and Johnsson out, who is stepping on defense to fill that void, and how's it working out?
Shockingly, it's been Dustin Byfuglien. Buff started his career here as a d-man but shifted to forward a couple years ago. He's gone back in this emergency, and has been a surprise. That doesn't mean he's been great, his positioning can be "abstract", and he shotguns up the ice at all times, leaving his partner stranded. Luckily, they've paired him with ultimate insurance policy in Duncan Keith. But that somewhat nullifies Keith's offensive game. Needless to say, the Hawks need Johnsson back. It has caused Seabrook to be paired with Hjalmarsson, which has been a revelation.
2. What's the scouting report on Antti Niemi? We only saw him against Nashville once back in December.
Niemi has been playing out of his mind in April, so I'm far more confident in him than I was. He's very athletic, and will make the highlight reel save. He does tend to be hunched over in the butterfly, so he does leave the upper part of the net open occasionally. He also doesn't move side to side that well and leaves gaps there, and he's downright awful handling the puck. However, he's athletic enough to make up for most of that and he's clearly bursting with confidence right now.
3. The Blackhawks lead the league with 13 shorthanded goals - who should Preds fans look out for on the PK?
Everyone. Everyone! EVERYONE!!!!!!! Every player the Hawks throw out on the PK is a threat. They'll start most kills off with Madden and Bolland, but Hossa and Toews roll out after that and they create one chance per kill it seems. After that Sharp and Versteeg come out, and they've been scary good lately too. Our kill's better than our power play.
4. Before losing to the Red Wings in OT on Sunday, the Hawks had won six straight - was the top seed in the West an important goal for the team?
They said it was, but I don't buy it. In the West, you can't duck anyone. If they had grabbed the top seed it would have probably meant a second round date with Detroit. Now it probably means Vancouver, there's hardly any distance. The Hawks won in San Jose twice this year, I would think it would be unlikely they would fear playing the Sharks. If they even have to, which I doubt they will.
5. For Preds fans who may not be familiar with Joel Quenneville, tell us what to expect. In years past, Ron Wilson became a huge villain here during two series against the Sharks.
That's one of the big questions around here. Although Q has installed a system and mentality in the Hawks that allowed them to become what they are, he does have some tendencies that leave us urpy. He loves to mix and match his lines, which occasionally hits on a total winner (wait til you get a load of this Sharp-Toews-Hossa combo), but can rob the team of rhythm. He also loves to match lines, but his matchy-uppiness again can rob the Hawks of rhythm. I can't imagine against the Preds he's going to bend over too far backwards and more worry about making Trotz react to us. But the main thing is Q had an absolute meltdown during the Conference Finals last year, and it was a terrible way to lead a young team. Until he proves otherwise, we worry about that a little.
6. How short is Antti Niemi's leash? If he falters, will we see Cristobal Huet?
I would think Antti-goal's leash is awfully long. Quenneville has never had much confidence in Huet -- which he helped destroy but that's another story -- and couldn't wait to throw his lot in with Niemi. Niemi would have to completely shit himself in both Games 1 and 2 to even consider it, and Huet hasn't played in over a month. That said, I don't see that happening due to the combo of the strong defensive game the Hawks play and the Preds lack of punch. I can't see where Niemi will see so many shots that he'll have the opportunity to spit it.
7. Marian Hossa isn't exactly known as a postseason juggernaut. How much of the Blackhawks' offense run through him?
This perception bothers me a little. Two years ago, Hossa very well may have won the Conn Smythe if the Pens had beaten the Wings then. Yes, he wasn't very good last year but was apparently playing with a shoulder that was basically pepper jack cheese. The Hawks expect a lot from Hossa, and he's a force. But how much do they count on him? Well, with Toews, Sharp, Kane, Brouwer, Versteeg, and even Bolland capable of scoring, as well as Keith, Buff, and a healthy Johnsson scoring from the backend, as well as a 4th line that's been an Act of God recently, the Hawks could live with a short blip. But to go all the way, the Hawks will need Hossa to be Marian Hossa, and I think he will because he'll be playing with a frothing-at-the-mouth Jonathan Toews. You may remember what that looks like from the Olympics.
8. With major salary cap problems coming up, does Chicago feel like this is their best chance at a Cup for a while?
Here's another perception that bothers me. With the trade of Barker, the Hawks really only need to shed Versteeg and Byfuglien after the year to be under the cap by a margin (and whatever the work out with Huet, be it trade/buyout/KHL will save more cash). When that's done, this team will still sport Kane, Toews, Sharp, Hossa, Bolland, Brouwer, Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson and Campbell with some kids coming through. How bad is that team going to be? That said, you're only guaranteed the chance right in front of you, so nothing less than possession of the Silver Chalice will do this year.
9. Can you pinpoint a particular theme or two behind the Hawks' rough patches and losses this year, and what will Nashville need to do to exploit those?
The Hawks rough patches came when they stopped paying attention in their own zone. They weren't getting in shooting lanes or working that hard along the boards. There were a lot of shortcuts being taken. That came a time when both Huet and Niemi hid the skids. That's been solved recently. I don't know what the Preds can do to force anything like that, because it's really about the Hawks mentality. On the other end, the Hawks can struggle with trap-teams when they try and get too cute, so the Preds might find some joy there. But that still is at least half-about what the Hawks do.
10. Finally, what are your predictions (results or otherwise) for the series and why?
The Preds are definitely a tricky team, and it's hard not to love Weber and Suter. That said, and without wanting to upset Nashville fans, I just can't see the Preds having enough firepower to stage an upset. Sure, there will be landmines planted in the neutral zone and I doubt any game will be a blowout, and they could certainly muck up their way to one maybe even two victories. But the Hawks are just so deep, they are scoring on all lines right now, and I haven't seen Rinne prove that he can steal a series yet. Hawks in 5, perhaps 6.
Thanks much to Sam for his time and excellent answers. Check out SCH, and here's to proving his predictions wrong.