The National Hockey League obviously saved the best for last, with the Predators and Blackhawks opening their Western Conference Quarterfinal series Friday evening at the United Center in Chicago. The experts around the NHL are in heated disagreement over their predictions for this series - how many games will the Blackhawks take to win it?
I can see why they're smitten with the Hawks - they have lots of young talent, and a few high-priced veterans to go along with them. Once you start digging into the details, however, things start to look much different...
First, let's start off with the largest factor in the game, 5-on-5 play:
|5-on-5 Team Data from Behind the Net|
|Team||GF||GA||GF/60||Shots For/60||Shoot %||GA/60||Shots Ag/60||Save %||+/- per 60|
Looking at data from all 82 games, the Blackhawks would appear to have a pretty hefty advantage at even strength. That team Plus/Minus per 60 minutes of +0.4 is 4th best in the NHL.
But recall the story of this Nashville Predators season - they got off to a lousy start as defense pairings were sorted out, Francis Bouillon got up to speed (after signing just a couple days before the first game) and the team has steadily improved over time. If you carve out the first 11 games from each team's results (as found in this preview of a game between them in late October), these teams look much, much closer:
|5-on-5 Data Since 10/29 NSH vs. CHI (final 71 games)
|Team||GF||GA||GF/60||Shots For/60||Sht %||GA/60||Shots Ag/60||Save %||+/- per 60|
In a nutshell? Just as the Preds got off to a terrible start in October, the Blackhawks were red-hot at that time. For the last 5.5 months, they've played at a very similar level overall, and during the last month, Nashville has been better.
Since the San Jose Horror on March 11, the Preds have outscored opponents 30-23 in even strength play. In that same time frame, the Blackhawks have 41 GF and 40 GA at evens.
Yes, the Blackhawks do boast some game-breaking talent up front with names like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Marian Ho$$a. But the Preds are no slouches, and Patric Hornqvist, Martin Erat, and Steve Sullivan will keep the Chicago defense scrambling at times. Perhaps the most important aspect of the 5-on-5 play will be how much Barry Trotz is able to roll the lines. Four-line depth has been a true strength for the Predators this season, and a few goals from the 3rd and 4th lines will go a long way towards taking the heat off the stars.
Predators PP vs. Blackhawks PK
|Nashville PP||Chicago PK|
| Shots per 60 minutes
||50.5 (16th)||48.0 (7th)||Shots Against/60|
|GF/60||5.0 (29th)||4.7 (4th)||GA/60|
|Shoot %||9.9% (29th)||.902 (5th)||Save %|
|PP TOI/Gm||5.6 (22nd)||5.1 (3rd)||PK TOI/Gm|
Obviously, this isn't a pretty picture - the Preds don't generate a ton of power play time, and don't create particularly good scoring chances. There's also an element of danger as the Blackhawks led the NHL with 13 shorthanded goals.
The opportunity here, however, lies in the return of Denis Grebeshkov, an excellent PP performer who only played four games in the regular season with the Preds. Over the last two seasons, Grebeshkov's Points per 60 minutes in 5-on-4 PP time ranks right alongside celebrated Chicago blueliner Brian Campbell (3.75 last season, 3.40 this one compared to 3.92 and 3.41 for Campbell). Grebs is the "ace in the hole" that Trotz can play as soon as he's ready (likely Game Two).
Blackhawks PP vs. Predators PK
|Chicago PP||Nashville PK|
| Shots per 60 minutes
||52.1 (11th)||53.2 (19th)||Shots Against/60|
|GF/60||6.7 (9th)||8.2 (27th)||GA/60|
|Shoot %||12.9% (10th)||.846 (29th)||Save %|
|PP TOI/Gm||5.5 (26th)||4.6 (1st)||PK TOI/Gm|
Chicago boasts a pretty good power play unit (not world-beating), while the Preds have been uncharacteristically poor. The effect here should be minimized by the fact that Nashville doesn't spend much time in the penalty box, and the Blackhawks don't draw many calls either.
Scott Reynolds makes the argument that the Preds' lousy Save % on the PK is likely due to team defensive issues, and I'm inclined to agree there. Can all this time off leading into Game One give the coaches enough practice time to shore things up? Let's hope so...
#31 / Goalie / Chicago Blackhawks
Aug 29, 1983
|2009 - Antti Niemi||39||2190||26||7||4||82||2.25||936||854||.912||7|
The Blackhawks turned to the rookie after Cristobal Huet failed (again) to assert himself as the #1 guy, despite a 4-year, $25 million contract that still has two years left on it. Niemi will have to handle Hornqvist's presence on his doorstep and maintain his composure - if he gets pulled at any point, the Blackhawks would be one bad Huet goal away from a complete meltdown.
Since March 1, Niemi has a 9-3-3 record and .911 Save Percentage with two shutouts.
#35 / Goalie / Nashville Predators
Nov 03, 1982
|2009 - Pekka Rinne||58||3246||32||16||5||137||2.53||1541||1404||.911||7|
Overall, I'd say Peks had a mediocre season - but the good news is that since the Olympic lockout and signing his new two-year contract, he's been outstanding (12-4-1, .931 Save Percentage, 4 shutouts).
The Predators need to build upon their road success this season (23-15-3) to win at least one of the opening games this weekend in Chicago. They can do that by exploiting the absence of Brian Campbell and Kim Johnsson as long as they can, putting pressure on Blackhawk defensemen (especially the understudy, Dustin Byfuglien) and not letting the forwards carry the puck easily through center ice.
On the attack, the plan should be vintage Predators; make sure to get the puck deep in the zone, work around the boards and look for opportunities to drive the net, whether via a slapshot from the point, or by cutting into the slot and firing away. The imperative will be not to turn the puck over high in the zone to Chicago's speedy forwards, and put shots on net as often as possible.
I like Pekka Rinne's ability to dominate, and that if the two teams do need to go to their backups, the Predators will have much more reason for confidence than the Hawks.
As to Chicago, they remind me somewhat of Team Russia heading into the Olympics (except without the goaltending credentials). Their top-end talent has fans drooling, but when the role players hit the ice, the Preds should have the edge.
Since the bulk of the gameplay is likely to remain in 5-on-5, that depth will play a large role, and Nashville is more than capable of holding their own in that situation. Now that they finally have a relatively healthy lineup heading into the playoffs, everyone on this team from the GM down to the equipment guys are bent on creating some history.
I'll take the Nashville Predators in six games.