Tonight, the Nashville Predators start an insane stretch of five games against either Central division foes, or teams that are fighting for their playoff lives. First up are the Chicago Blackhawks, who have just recently conceded their division lead to the Dallas Stars.
When the world last saw the Blackhawks, they were getting dismantled by the Minnesota Wild in Chicago's annual outdoor game. (Minnesota wishes they could do that during the playoffs.)
They've had some time to rest and recover, which they'll need because they have a grueling schedule ahead as well. After tonight, a mix of road and home games put them up against the Capitals, Red Wings (x2), Bruins, Blues, Stars, and Kings. Woof.
Other than that, there's not much going on with the Hawks that hasn't been going on all year. Patrick Kane is still leading the league in points, and Artemi Panarin is doing a masterful job in helping him do so. The Bread Man is a lock for the Calder trophy, even if there will be plenty of chin-wagging on whether his years playing professional hockey overseas aren't exactly fair. (Hey, he's under the age of 27 and is playing his first year in the NHL. Rules are rules.) Being the 7th best scorer in the NHL is impressive regardless of if it's your first season or not.
Jonathan Toews was having a rough stretch to begin the year, but has since recovered to become the third-leading point scorer on the team. As if that's a surprise.
As for falling out of the lead in the Central, Blackhawks fans probably couldn't care less. Usually with teams, it's hard to find reasons why they will win a round or two come the postseason. With Chicago, it's hard to justify how they won't get to the Western Conference Final or Stanley Cup Final. They are still that good, and will still be the team to beat when the season ends.
The Nashville Predators
Coming up on the schedule: Chicago, St. Louis and Dallas, whom the Predators have had problems with all year. Their record against the Central is not good, but last weeks game against the Stars was a step in the right direction. They need to build off that in the United Center tonight, and carry it through the next several games. Getting into the playoffs is great, but if they can't beat the teams in their own division it's probably not going to be a very long dance.
After them, Colorado and New Jersey are up. The Avalanche are more secure in the playoff spot than the Devils, but Colorado is playing to keep their positioning while New Jersey is still very much in the hunt despite the amount of games they've played. Two desperate teams do not an easy match up make.
Let's start with the good: Filip Forsberg is on a scoring tear reminiscent of what he did for so long last year. With nine goals and 12 points in his last nine games, he's overtaken the goal scoring lead on the team, and quickly creeping up on Roman Josi for the points lead.
A line below him, Craig Smith has two goals and five points in his last five games, though he could easy have two or three more tallies. (We won't mention that, though.) If he can stop getting in his own way, reaching20 goals is not off the table in the final quarter of the season. Even if this year has been somewhat of a disappointment for Smith, chipping in that many goals for his team is not nothing.
Now the bad news: the top line hasn't been productive the last five games. They've had their opportunities and with James Neal and Ryan Johansen leading the charge, the goose eggs won't last for long. Still, Nashville needs them if they want to make it out of this upcoming stretch of games intact. Luckily, a game against Chicago might be just what they need. In his career, Neal has 14 goals and 19 points in 22 games against the Hawks. It would be nice to wear out the goal light, tonight.
Shea Weber is questionable for tonight's game.
There are really only two teams to be watching as the calendar turns to march, with apologies to the Coyotes. The Avalanche drew to within one point of the Predators, thanks to a shootout win over San Jose last night. The good news for Nashville is they have two games in hand, one of which is tonight. Winning both of those keeps the grasp on the first wild card spot firm.
The Minnesota Wild are the other. They're five points behind Nashville, but have been playing much better hockey since firing Mike Yeo and have a game in hand. The Wild have a back-to-back in Philadelphia tonight, and Washington tomorrow, both of which will be a challenge for them. Make sure to find your favorite orange and red shirts to wear.
Sights and Sounds
Oh hey, a nationally televised game. We're likely going to be stuck with Eddie Olczyk either way, but hopefully we get an actual NBCSN team rather than the recycled CSN-Chicago feed. I'll take Doc, Kenny Albert or John Forslund over Pat Foley any day of the week. Magic 8 Ball chances of escaping that? Low.
Tune into NBCSN at 7 p.m. Central, or stream the game here. You can also catch the sweet sounds of Pete Weber on 102.5 The Game.