Preview: Nashville Predators vs. Chicago Blackhawks 4/21/21: Foot on the throat

The Predators have a chance to cement their position in what has effectively become a two-horse playoff race.

Folks, it’s about that time of year. With the playoff race for the Central Division’s fourth seed coming down to the wire between the Nashville Predators and Dallas Stars, every point is going to be crucial; can the Predators continue their recent run of dominance against the Chicago Blackhawks to grab critical standings points, or will Chicago finally stem the tide of a team that’s had their number? What are the storylines, who are the players to watch, and how can Nashville take home the W in this one? All that and more below.

The Predators

Nashville is in the thick of a tight playoff race with a Dallas team that’s been cramming games in at an alarming rate. The Predators are “adding” by getting players back from injury, including Matt Duchene and (possibly) Eeli Tolvanen, who was recently updated to day-to-day status after previously being week-to-week. For a Preds team that’s largely been toothless on offense without a primary shooting option thanks to injury, bringing back one of their two absent snipers might be the difference between a postseason appearance and a lottery pick, so this is wonderful news.

How has a team without any offensive punch been winning games lately? Obviously, the answer is Juuse Saros, who’s had an incredible finish to a season after a lackluster beginning. Saros ought to be heavily involved in conversation surrounding the Vezina thanks to the way he’s been carrying a Nashville team that’s decidedly below average (20th in xGF/60, 12th in xGA/60 on the season). This roster should by all reasonable accounts be headed into a rebuild, but the Little Finnish Goalie That Could has dragged them into a last-minute race with the Stars for the wildcard spot.

In terms of a player to watch in this one, keep your eyes on Matt Duchene. The pricey pivot has been stellar since returning from the IR, even if his point totals haven’t been showstopping. Duchene is an effective cog in transition and has provided surprising value as a moving screen/netfront option. While he hasn’t been the piece that many (including David Poile) had probably hoped for, he’s a quality 2C who can drive a line. Look for him to create some chances and maybe(!) some points in this one.

The Blackhawks

This Chicago team is weird. Despite having some fun young talent, the team overall is barebones and lackluster. Patrick Kane provides plenty of offensive value, but his line regularly gets shelled; Pius Suter and Philipp Kurashev are great, with Kurashev in particular possessing a few elite traits like fantastic rebound generation, but both haven’t been as good as their production would suggest. In fact, in terms of U23 wins above replacement, Nashville and Chicago are neck-and-neck.

Chicago has serious depth problems, something Nashville will look to take advantage of in this game with Duchene and company back. I’ve cited before how the Hawks’ lack of speed along the wings and youth can expose them when teams take aggressive gaps and pressure them with a heavy forechecking effort; the Preds will need to apply these principles again, or risk having to rely on a herculean effort from whoever ends up in net.

Three Big Things

  1. The last game against Chicago was a clinic; the Preds simply need to replicate that performance for a winning recipe. While the final score wasn’t fully reflective of how well Nashville played, the showing they managed against one of the teams they had to beat was impressive, and about as strong as could be reasonably expected. Do it again.
  2. Is Juuse Saros the starter, and if not, how does Pekka Rinne handle getting some action? Rinne has been fine lately, but against a high-octane Chicago offense with the ability to exploit poor rebound control, would he fare as well? Guess we’ll have to find out. If Saros is in net, the Preds have to get both points. They’re riding the young goalie as far as he’ll take them.
  3. Duncan Keith is washed. Dunk on him relentlessly. The future Hall-of-Famer has sharply declined in recent years, but he’s still getting heavy deployment against the best competition teams have to offer. Nashville should go after him early and often; if Keith is in open ice and has to challenge somebody, he’s not likely to win a one-on-one battle anymore. He’s an easy weakness for Nashville to prey upon.

Game Day Tunes

Good vibes, folks. It’s nearly summer.

Happy game day, and as always, go Preds.