In the spirit of the holiday season, the Nashville Predators have given their fans a six-game winning streak marked by some of the best hockey played by the Boys in Gold since 2017. Even as COVID-19 unravels everything, Preds fans get the treat of watching their team go up against one of the league’s laughingstocks in the Chicago Blackhawks, a hated rival fallen from grace. When looking at this game, who are the players to watch, what do we predict will happen, and why does it matter? All of that and more below.
Since firing Jeremy Colliton, Chicago has gone from being one of the league’s worst analytical teams to being... one of the league’s worst analytical teams. While the ‘Hawks have been significantly better defensively under interim head coach Derek King, they certainly haven’t figured things out, sitting at .500 in their last 10 games and still ranking third worst in the NHL by xGF% at 5-on-5.
That doesn’t mean Chicago is a team to take lightly, especially given the look of Nashville’s roster following the most recent COVID-19 outbreak. Propelled by Alex DeBrincat, who in his last 82 games dating back to last season has scored at nearly a 50 goal pace, as well as other high-scoring guys like Seth Jones and Patrick Kane, the Blackhawks aren’t a roster lacking for top-end finishing talent.
However, when you look past those three names, it becomes clear why things in Chicago are so dire: the depth is atrocious. The ‘Hawks rank second worst in GF/60 at 5-on-5, putting up just 1.68 goals every full game of even strength competition. This is an awful hockey team, and the Predators should be able to beat them even when missing a significant chunk of their roster.
The Blackhawks will be without Calvin de Haan, Henrik Borgstrom, Jujhar Kaira, Reese Johnson, and Tyler Johnson for this game, for a combination of reasons (injuries and COVID-19). For a roster that’s already quite shallow, losing two lineup regulars like de Haan and Borgstrom doesn’t bode well. While neither have exactly been great players, the options to replace them don’t scream “improvement.”
The Predators are on a ridiculous PDO binge, meaning that their goaltending and shooting have been incredibly lucky and are due for some regression. This is less of a concern than it would have been a few months ago, though, given that Nashville’s underlying process is creeping into the same range as legitimately good or great teams like the Wild and Capitals. After spending much of the season in the 16-17 range of xGF% and CF% at even strength, the Preds have crept up to 11th and 13th in those areas, respectively.
That matches up with what we’ve seen via the eye test, with the team settling in to their system and executing it to perfection. When you’re getting quotes from opposing teams about how you’re kicking them around in the boards on defense and offense, that tells you that something is going right. A six-game winning streak is always going to have some element of luck behind it, but the Predators are creating their luck in ways that hint at this team finally returning to the status of a legit Cup contender.
Leading the way for Nashville are Juuse Saros and Filip Forsberg, both of whom are having top ten seasons at their respective positions. Forsberg has been one of the NHL’s most impactful scorers while also playing elite defense and driving play. When your scoring rate (GF/60, all situations) is in the same neighborhood as Auston Matthews, it’s pretty clear you’re having an exceptional year. Meanwhile, Saros is still playing lights out. The numbers speak for themselves.
Juuse Saros since he first started going midway through last season:— Dimitri Filipovic (@DimFilipovic) December 17, 2021
•.948 5v5 save %
•.936 overall save %
•Gave up ~25 fewer goals than expected (via NST)
•Gave up 2 goals or less in 39 of 50
•Won 32 of the 50
The Predators will still be without Cousins, Granlund, McCarron, and Tomasino due to COVID-19, but tonight might see the return of Ryan Johansen to the lineup, adding back a bit more scoring punch in the middle six. Serving in relief are Tommy Novak and his rag-tag bunch of AHL pals, who performed admirably against a short-handed, but still dangerous Avalanche team yesterday.
Three Big Things
- Maintaining a hard forecheck is going to be critical if the Preds want to get on top of Chicago early. This is a team whose defenders are all either inexperienced, old, or flat-out poor; forcing them into errors by putting consistent pressure on their breakouts is going to lend Karl Taylor and co. a lot of relief. Forechecking will dictate who controls the pace of this game.
- The AHL folks will need to stay the course after a solid debut game. With top six guys like Matt Duchene and Mikael Granlund missing (Duchene is considered day-to-day, so he could return at any point), Novak, Smith, and the rest of the minor leaguers will be filling critical roles. In order to beat a shallow team, it helps to be comparatively deep so line matchups become advantages. Can those players outgun the Blackhawks’ depth? Only time will tell.
- If Ryan Johansen does indeed return, he’s our pick for the impact player of the game. His presence in the middle of the lineup could work wonders for a team lacking any sort of punch down the middle.
Game Day Tunes
Headbanging material to get you ready for a rivalry game.
Happy game day folks, and as always, go Preds.