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Predators Game Day Preview: Chicago @ Nashville

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The Nashville Predators get right back to work after a short Christmas break, with the first half of a home-and-home series with Chicago taking place Saturday night at the Sommet Center. While most observers expected the Blackhawks to lead the Central Division to this point with their 24-9-3 record, the fact that Nashville is the team on their heels with a 22-12-3 mark is a surprise.

Follow after the jump for the breakdown of what is probably the biggest Western Conference battle on a busy day of NHL action...

For discounted tickets for tonight against the Chicago Blackhawks, or any Nashville Predators home game, you can follow this link and use the special offer code "PREDS".

In their four previous meetings this season, each team has won and lost a game both at home and on the road. Most recently, in Chicago on December 4, the Preds took a 4-1 decision as they pulled away in the 3rd period of a close game.

Meet the Enemy

Chicago comes into tonight having won 5 out of their last 6, which includes two 3-0 victories over Detroit last Sunday and Wednesday. Marian Hossa has returned to the lineup following shoulder surgery and paid instant dividends, with six goals and seven assists in 14 games. For me, the critical matchup to watch this evening is the power-on-power battle between Hossa and Nashville's Shea Weber.

Of course, besides Hossa, the Blackhawks boast 5 double-digit goal-scorers already, so the entire lineup is capable of bringing offensive pressure.

Per SB Nation's Second City Hockey, the Chicago lines should look as follows:

Kane - Toews - Hossa
Versteeg - Sharp - Byfuglien
Ladd - Madden- Brouwer
Kopecky - Fraser - Eager

Keith - Seabrook
Campbell - Hjalmarsson
Sopel- Barker

Meet the Good Guys

Despite getting drummed out of Vancouver on Tuesday, the Predators have been playing excellent hockey for several weeks now (6-1-1 in their last 8), enough to lift them well above Columbus, Detroit and St. Louis in the Central Division. The loss of Jerred Smithson for at least this weekend will require adjustments to the lineup, so I won't post tentative lines here until we get further information, perhaps after the morning skate.

The big questions will be whether Patric Hornqvist can keep his 5-game point scoring streak alive, and if the big guns for Nashville can keep up with the high-flying Hawks. Also, what will happen with David Legwand's shutdown line? Without Smithson, will another winger simply get plugged in, or will Barry Trotz go for an entirely different look?

Even Strength Play

5-on-5 data from Behind the Net
TEAM GP GF GA GF/60 SF/60 Sht % GA/60 SA/60 Save Pct. +/- per 60
Chicago 37 65 51 2.3 32.3 7.1 1.8 23.1 .922 +0.5
Nashville 36 74 66 2.5 29.0 8.7 2.2 28.9 .923 +0.3

The Blackhawks boast impressive numbers in just about every category here, and those Shots For & Against totals are flat-out amazing. Chicago is #2 in Shots For/60 Minutes, and #1 in Shots Against. That's a deadly combo, even if their shooting percentage is a bit off. The Predators are no slouches in 5-on-5 however, as their play over the last two months has lifted them from the dregs of the NHL up above the break-even point. If anything, Nashville's recent play has been consistently better than the season-long averages listed above.

Advantage: none

Chicago PP vs. Nashville PK

It is surprising to see that Chicago ranks 14th (18.8%) on the power play, and that they get relatively few chances to work with the man advantage as well (7th least); together, that means the Blackhawks have scored just 25 PP goals all season, 22nd in the league and just 3 ahead of the Predators. They've recently made comments that they'd like to do much better in that regard. For Nashville, however, the penalty kill has been a sore spot lately, turning what has typically been a team strength into its greatest weakness (28th-ranked, 75.8%)

Advantage: Chicago

Nashville PP vs. Chicago PK

Don't ask... The Predators have made their rise through the standings despite awful work by their special teams, as the power play sits in 26th (16.1%). Chicago's penalty killing, on other hand, is one of the NHL's elite units, 2nd-ranked at 87.0%. They are also one of the few teams that kill as few penalties as Nashville does.

Advantage: Chicago

Goaltending

While Cristobal Huet has generally played well this season, his 3-2 loss to San Jose on Tuesday, in which Huet gave up 3 goals on just 14 shots, keeps alive a nagging voice of criticism that perhaps he's not the guy to lead this team on a playoff run. Rookie backup Antti Niemi has been outstanding in limited action (check out those 4 shutouts in just 10 games!).


GP MIN W L GA GAA SA SV SV% SO
2009 - Cristobal Huet 27 1582 16 8 54 2.05 621 567 .913 3

GP MIN W L GA GAA SA SV SV% SO
2009 - Antti Niemi 10 605 8 1 16 1.59 253 237 .937 4

For Nashville, the flurry of offensive output has overshadowed a bit of a setback among the goaltenders in recent weeks. They've been good, but certainly not great:


GP MIN W L GA GAA SA SV SV% SO
2009 - Pekka Rinne 25 1352 14 6 62 2.75 653 591 .905 2

GP MIN W L GA GAA SA SV SV% SO
2009 - Dan Ellis 17 891 8 6 41 2.76 449 408 .909 0

Advantage: Chicago

Summary

This is a game of opportunity for the Nashville Predators; having risen into the ranks of playoff teams, do they have what it takes to challenge Chicago for Central Division supremacy?

The trick here will be to re-establish the team's defensive credentials, after giving up at least 3 goals in each of the last 5 games. Sure, the 6-3 romps have been exciting, but we know in our heart of hearts that the Predators aren't going to win consistently by those types of scores.