Nashville Predators vs. Chicago Blackhawks Playoff Preview: The Forwards
Now that you're up to speed on special teams, coaches, goaltenders, and the defense, it's time to look at the forwards.
Like it or not, this is the one area where the Blackhawks completely overpower the Predators, mostly by the sheer amount of scoring players alone. Any of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp can end a game for Chicago, and Brandon Saad has blossomed into a reliable winger who puts up points.
Predators have James Neal... and a season of Filip Forsberg. Not to take anything away from Craig Smith or Colin Wilson (who both had fine years) but Wilson completely disappeared down the stretch and Smith, like the team, was hit or miss.
In terms of overall production, the two teams were only separated by six total goals all season. Nashville ranked 14th in the league, Chicago 17th. But Nashville also had 55 goals from defensemen, compared to the Blackhawks' 29. Defensive production in this series is going to be important, and the Preds' blue line is already going to have their hands full.
So let's look at the quick breakdown.
5V5 SACF% Rel
We've said it all year, but Nashville is a top-heavy team. You can actually see the line where the top-six plummets into the bottom-six. Chicago is no slouch in the defensive department, and all season we've said the Preds are screwed if the top line is shut down.
Three of the more important Predators in this series are going to be Wilson, Smith and Fisher. Essentially three 20-goal scorers that can provide a secondary boost away from Neal and Forsberg. Hopefully #12 is healthy to start the series, and Wilson and Smith need to get out of their own heads.
Looking at their usage charts over the season, it shows us what we already know:
The NeRF line get's tough competition with tons of offensive zone starts, while the second line gets little less of each. Gaustad's line takes heavy defensive zone draws, and the third liners get whatever is left over. Home ice is going to be imperative for Peter Laviolette, so he can deploy his troops against the exact matchups he wants. It's part of what made Nashville so unstoppable at the Bridge early on. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are going to out whenever the top line is, so minimizing that time taking advantage of Chicago's bottom lines is going to be priority number one.
|Player||GP||G||A||P||S||5V5 SACF%||5V5 SACF% Rel|
Woof. That's a lot of forwards on the plus side of 50%, and plenty of them performing better relative to their team. (I see you, Pat Kane.)
Saad, Toews and Hossa have been playing together for most of the season, and it looks like Versteeg, Richards and Kane are being reunited as well. However, Joel Quennville is known for scrambling his lines as he sees fit, and has already been doing so leading up to Game 1. Vermette will most likely be a healthy scratch, which is not a benefit to the team. It's something the Predators can try to exploit, provided they aren't drowning in Kane's and Toews' line.
Toews and Hossa are just beasts, eating up tons of heavy minutes and succeeding in it. That leaves everyone else room to take easier assignments, and for the most part they succeed as well. If the bottom six lines can be assembled to put Andrew Shaw et al. in a position to succeed...
Chicago has the advantage, but that doesn't mean there isn't anyway to slow them down. Basically, what Nashville can't match in firepower, it has to match in defense and double in goaltending. You've heard it ad nauseam for days now: Rinne is the key to this series. It's true, because the puck stop with him. But he's not going to do it alone, and he can certainly get some help from the 12 guys attacking Corey Crawford.