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Series Preview: Final Thoughts

It’s about that time.

NHL: Nashville Predators at Chicago Blackhawks Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

We are nearly there. Only mere hours remain until the Predators take on the Blackhawks in Game 1.

We’ve covered everything from the forwards, the defense, the goalies, and the special teams. We’ve encouraged the Predators to exorcise their Game 5 demons. We got really optimistic, and then we got really, really optimistic.

It’s been a long week. It’s time for some hockey.

Before that, here are some final thoughts going into Game 1.

Win one of these first two games

Here’s what we’re up against.

Since 2009, the Blackhawks have an incredible 10-1 series record with home ice advantage in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. A total of 11 teams have been the road team in a playoff series against the Hawks and only one was able to win four of seven games and advance in the playoffs. The other 10 were sent home packing.

The one that did it? The 2014 Los Angeles Kings. They beat Chicago in Game 7 of the Western Conference Final and would eventually go on to win the Cup.

Worried yet? There’s more.

Since 2009, the Blackhawks also have an incredible record in the first two home games of a playoff series in which they have home ice advantage. That record is 17-5. That’s a win percentage of .772, which is insane for the regular season, and even more insane for the playoffs.

To put it another way, more often than not, these Hawks are up 2-0 in a series before they even leave Chicago.

The bottom line is that this Blackhawks dynasty is nearly impossible to beat in a series when they have home ice advantage. Getting the upper hand on the Blackhawks (i.e., winning at least one in the United Center) is an incredible task.

But five teams found a way to do it after the first two games. Here they are:

  • 2010: 2-0 loss to NSH in Game 2 (Round 1)
  • 2010: 5-1 loss to VAN in Game 1 (Round 2)
  • 2013: 4-1 loss to DET in Game 2 (Round 2)
  • 2013: 2-1 loss to BOS in Game 2 (Stanley Cup Final)
  • 2014: 6-2 loss to LAK in Game 2 (Western Conference Final)

A couple things to notice here. One is that four of the five losses came in the second game of the series. Only once did the Hawks lose Game 1 on home ice. The other thing to notice is that the Kings—the only road team to win a series against the Blackhawks—won Game 2 back in 2014.

Of course, it’s important to point out that Chicago was able to recover and win the series in all but one of those five losses. They rarely lose home ice advantage and they even more rarely fail to grab it back. So it’s not like this is some key to beating them. It’s just an interesting trend.

If the Predators have any shot of winning this series, they will have to follow the same path as the 2014 Kings, the only team to have ever beaten the Blackhawks in a series as the road team. Winning one of these first two games is crucial. If you are playing the odds, I would say Saturday is the best bet.

Trade skill for skill

I talked about the Patrick Kane/Artemi Panarin pairing being the most dangerous aspect of the Blackhawks in Monday’s forwards preview. That’s still the case. In fact, it’s only made worse that Artem Anisimov is going to re-join them in time for Game 1.

The Kane line is the one that can do the most damage in the Nashville end and thus should be the primary concern of the Predators. That’s not to say that the Toews line and the Hossa/Hartman/Kruger line can’t do any damage, but those lines don’t put up three goals an hour like the Kane line.

In the playoffs you make sacrifices. It’s time for the Predators to make a sacrifice.

The Predators top line of Ryan Johasen, Filip Forsberg, and Viktor Arvidsson is going to have to be the one to stop that line. If that means they are unable to generate their usual offensive frenzy, so be it. Let another Preds line try to score the goals. The Predators won’t stand a chance at winning if the Kane line is able to roam free. It just won’t happen.

The good news is that the JOFA line has had some success this year against Kane and Panarin at 5v5. In just over 11 minutes time on ice combined, the JOFA line has a +15 shot attempt differential against Kane and a +13 differential against Panarin. Against Kane, the JOFA line has a net goal differential of zero, scoring one goal while giving up one. With Panarin out there, they are +2 in goal differential, scoring two and giving up none. Their numbers are similar against Anisimov.

That’s not a lot of time on ice, but it’s not nothing. Even five minutes against Kane & Panarin is dangerous, so to put up those numbers in over 11 minutes is impressive.

To continue that type of play in the playoffs, the top line is going to have to make some sacrifices. If it means Arvy is not pressing quite as high when Kane is out there, so be it. It if means Forsberg has to dump the puck in, rather that try a more skilled move to get by the defense—knowing that Kane and Panarin are ready to capitalize on a turnover—then so be it. It is means Johansen has to pick his passes more carefully, so be it.

At the end of the series, if the net combined goals scored among Johansen, Forsberg, Arvidsson, Kane, Panarin, and Anisimov is zero, you have to like the Preds chances, no?

The caveat, of course, is that the other forward lines must balance in favor of the Preds. I mean, someone has to score goals. If the lines are like they were on Tuesday and Wednesday, I’d say that is unlikely. If Colin Wilson and Calle Jarnkrok miss significant time, I’d say it is damn near impossible. But right now I think the Preds best chance at beating this Blackhawks team is to neutralize their most obvious threat.

Trust In Rinne (Because We Have To)

30.6 shots per game. That’s what the Blackhawks averaged this season. That’s good for 11th in the league. Not bad, not fantastic, not average. But good.

The Hawks also sported an 9.73% team shooting percentage. That was good for 8th in the league. Definitely not bad. Quite good.

So if you spread that math out a little bit, in a seven game series, the Blackhawks should get around 214 shots on Pekka Rinne (or Juuse Saros). If we keep everything else equal—that is to say that the Hawks’ power play time, shorthanded time, and even strength time are all proportional to their season averages— and they shoot right at their season average, then they would score something like 21 goals in the series. Or right at three per game.

If all that were to happen, that would mean Rinne (or Saros) would finish with around a .901 save percentage (193 saves on 214 shots) which would be pretty disappointing.

I would like to think Rinne could finish the series with something a bit better than that, but his recent playoffs record suggests it wouldn’t be much better. In his last 20 playoff games (Blackhawks ‘15, Ducks ‘16 and Sharks ‘16), Rinne stopped 555 of 612 shots for a .907 save percentage.

If he kept that pace—as bad as it is—the Preds would be looking at more like 19 goals by the Hawks instead of 21.

Two goals might be the difference in the series. Or it might be meaningless. Either way, the Preds will have to rely on Rinne to be the goalie to carry them past the Blackhawks for the first time ever.

Or they could play Juuse Saros.

Hell, I don’t know.