The Nashville Predators will take on Central Division rival Chicago Blackhawks in a first ever playoff meeting between the two teams. The series begins Friday night at the United Center. During the regular season, the Blackhawks were victorious in four of the six contests with the Predators.
If one were to view this matchup on paper, the advantage would go to the Hawks. This series will not be played on paper, but will be a war waged on the ice between two familiar rivals.
So how do the two teams compare? We will look at goaltending; defensive corp; offensive firepower; coaching; and intangibles.
Pekka Rinne against Antii Niemi, a battle of two Finnish countrymen, both getting their first taste of playoff experience. This matchup of two goalies that zero playoff experience will be interesting to see how each handles the pressure of the playoff race.
Both goalies came on strong at the mid point of the season to claim their respective team's starting job in net. Here is how they stack up statistically:
Pekka Rinne 32-16-5 2.53 GAA .910 Save %
Antti Niemi 26-7-4 2.25 GAA .912 Save %
Statistically, a very even matchup. Athletic goalies that have played solid hockey and are fundamentally sound in net. The difference will be the confidence and steadiness that each will bring to the net. Predator fans know that the team in front of Rinne play with a great deal of confidence when he is net. The Hawks have adapted to Niemi in the net after he won the starting job from Cristobal Huet, and they too, are playing a confident game in front of him. Rinne is playing with a tremendous amount of confidence right now, and it has translated into a strong stretch run to the playoffs for the Predators. Rinne is often called upon to keep his team in very low scoring affairs and has thrived in that type of pressure.
The Predators boast a very solid blue line, with Olympians Shea Weber and Ryan Suter anchoring the defensive corps. The pairings of Dan Hamhuis/ Cody Franson and Francis Buillon/Kevin Klein have been solid. Should Dennis Grebeshkov be able to return from injury, he will add depth to the blue line. Chicago has some stalwarts on the defensive unit as well, led by their Canadian Olympic team members Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith. The defense of Chicago has taken a hit with the injuries to Brian Campbell and Kim Johnsson, who was acquired at the trade deadline from Minnesota. Brent Sopel and Nick Boynton have stepped in to take more minutes and provide solid play.
Comparing the top six defensemen reveals statistical similarities:
Weber 78 GP 16G 27A 43 points +/- 0
Suter 82 GP 4G 33A 37 points +/- +4
Hamhuis 78 GP 5G 19A 24 points +/- +4
Franson 61 GP 6G 15A 21 points +/- +15
Buillon 81 GP 3G 8A 11 points +/- +5
Klein 81 GP 1G 10A 11 points +/- -13
Keith 82 GP 14G 55A 69 points +/- +21
Seabrook 78 GP 4G 26A 30 points +/- +20
Hjarlmarsson 77 GP 2G 15A 17 points +/- +9
Sopel 73 GP 1G 7A 8 points +/- +3
Boynton 49 GP 1G 7A 8 points +/- +5
Hendry 43 GP 2G 6A 8 points +/- +5
The top two defensemen for the Hawks have had a stellar season, as have the top D pairing of the Predators. The advantage for the Predators will be the fact that the second and third pairings have more game experience and have been somewhat more productive than the similar defensive pairings for the Blackhawks.
The Blackhawks offense is explosive, led by Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. All the forwards for Chicago bring speed and talent to the ice, and these two stars are augmented by Marian Hossa, Kris Versteeg, and Patrick Sharp. By contrast, the predators present a balanced attack that can produce points from all four lines. The Predators have been characterized as scoring by committee, with ten players tallying 30 or more points. The Predators are lead by Patric Hornqvist, who had 30 goals this season while Patrick Kane lead Chicago with 30 goals. The comparison of the top six forwards for each team highlights the disparity between the offensive production:
Hornqvist 80 GP 30G 21A 51 points
Sullivan 82 GP 17G 34A 51 points
Erat 74 GP 21G 28A 49 points
Arnott 63 GP 19G 27A 46 points
Dumont 74 GP 17G 28A 45 points
Legwand 82 GP 11G 27A 38 points
Kane 82 GP 30G 58A 88 points
Toews 76 GP 25G 43A 68 points
Sharp 82 GP 25G 41A 66 points
Hossa 57 GP 24G 27A 51 points
Versteeg 79 GP 20G 24A 44 points
Brouwer 78 GP 22G 18A 40 points
The Hawks have the ability to score prolifically throughout their lineup. The Predators are much more workmanlike in their offensive game. Where the Hawks can score highlight reel goals and tie a defense in knots, the Predators are a grind it out offense and create scoring chances off rebounds and winning battles for the puck.
Both Joel Quenneville and Barry Trotz are proven coaches and excellent bench bosses. Both manage the game well. Trotz has the ability to coax the most out of the talent he has and has done a masterful job of getting a squad with middle of the road talent back to the playoffs. Quenneville has managed a very talented team well, keeping their focus on the ice and satisfied with playing time. It would be easy to say that Quenneville is the better of the two coaches, but when you look at the talent on the ice and the corresponding record, the argument can be made that Trotz has done the better job of coaching. At the start of the season, the conventional wisdom was that Chicago would contend for the Conference crown and the Predators would be out of the playoffs. Conventional wisdom is batting 50%.
Special teams and faceoffs can often decide the outcome of a game or a series. The teams compare as follows:
Penalty Kill: Chicago 85.2% Nashville 77.1%
Power Play: Chicago 17.6% Nashville 16.4%
Faceoffs: Chicago 52.3% Nashville 49.2%
There are other intangibles to factor into the equation. Nashville won 28 one goal games this past season. That is significant because it gives the Predators a sense of confidence in a tight contest, as many playoff games become.
The major hurdle that the Predators have to get over is winning a road playoff game. In four previous trips to the playoffs, the Predators are yet to win a road playoff game. For this team to have any chance of advancing to the second round, the Predators are going to have to get this monkey off their back. Should the Predators falter in the first two games of the series, then it will be difficult for them to overcome that deficit and win the series.
There are several young players for the Predators that play key roles that have never experienced a playoff. How they react to the pressure of a playoff series and the games played in front of a large and vocal home crowd for the Blackhawks will be an important factor in the possibility of winning this series. Perhaps being young and not knowing better will be a good thing for players like Cody Franson, Colin Wilson, Cal O'Reilly, and Nick Spaling.
Advantage: Slight Edge to the Blackhawks
The series will hinge on three factors for the Predators: they must get outstanding goaltending from Pekka Rinne; the defense has to contain the potent Blackhawk forwards; and the offense has to produce. Of these factors, the one that is most questionable is the offensive production. It is critical that the top six forwards step up and be productive. In fact, their production has to improve from the regular season. Steve Sullivan, Patric Hornqvist, Jason Arnott, J.P. Dumont, and Marty Erat have to shoot often and finish their chances. The Predators also have to continue to get timely goals from third and fourth line players like Marcel Goc, Joel Ward, and (hopefully) David Legwand. If the offense does not produce, it will be a short series and another early exit for the Predators.
So who will win this series? Time to make the prediction and put the reputation on the line. Conventional wisdom says that this is a series that the Blackhawks should win easily. I believe conventional wisdom is wrong. The Predators will get their first road win in one of the first two games in Chicago. The defense and goaltending will stymie the potent Blackhawk offense. You can call this a homer pick, and it probably is, but my view is that the Predators pull the first round upset and take the series in six games.