(2) Nashville Predators vs. (3) Chicago Blackhawks
Season Series: Blackhawks win 3-1, Predators 1-1-2 (2-1 OT, 2-3, 3-1, 5-4 SO)
Patrick Kane wasn’t supposed to be back this soon, right? That’s probably a question that the Nashville Predators are asking themselves as Kane readies himself for the first round series. For the Blackhawks, they’ll get back Kane just in time, hoping to use the extra offense to break the strong Predator blue line anchored by Shea Weber and company, with Pekka Rinne in net.
This series has the feel of one that maybe two months ago would be all Preds, but now seems like it might be heavily tilted in the direction of Chicago. Peter Laviolette’s Nashville bunch were in control of the Central Division for a major part of the season, only to see St. Louis run away with it towards the end. The reward is a playoff series against an ever-dangerous Blackhawks team that simply knows how to get it done in the playoffs. Factor in the lack of home-ice advantage that Nashville will have at home as thousands of Hawks fans descend on Bridgestone Arena and it looks like a tough draw.
Sizing up the Predators: Defense and goaltending are the bread and butter of this team. Shea Weber might be the household name, but Roman Josi is one of the most underrated two way defensemen on the planet. Factor in a young and ever-improving Seth Jones and the Predators boast a back line that is mobile and can change the game on both ends of the ice. Pekka Rinne had a sensational season in net, with a 2.18 goals against average and a .923 save percentage. His play did drop off a bit towards the end of the season, so it’s imperative that Rinne regain some of his form if the Predators hope to stick around in this series. Offensively, the Preds were paced by rookie Filip Forsberg, who finished with 26 goals and 37 assists. Craig Smith, Colin Wilson and James Neal all eclipsed the 20-goal mark, so while there are no real stars offensively, Nashville can find scoring from a plethora of different avenues.
What to expect from the Blackhawks: This is not the same team that we’ve seen in years past – at least now. Absent for most of the season was the type of stifling defense that we’ve seen from this club in the past. Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson are the mainstays, but outside of those three, it’s been by committee at times. Injuries certainly have played a role in that. Chicago is a team that knows when to turn it on. Looking at their regular season for answers wouldn’t be doing them any justice. The Hawks also struggled to score after Patrick Kane went down, even after trading for Antoine Vermette, the former Coyote has struggled. The one mainstay for the Blackhawks all season has been Corey Crawford. Though he may have been perceived as the weak link on this team in years past, his play this season warrants attention. His 2.27 gaa and .924 save percentage speak to the kind of season that Crawford had between the pipes. On paper, this Blackhawks team seems to have questions about their scoring and how well they can defend. This is a veteran group that has been through so many big playoff tests before, expect them to rise to the challenge now that the stakes are raised.
Series X-Factor: Patrick Kane– Whether he comes back for game one or not, he will play in this series and his impact may decide the series. Kane is one of the most skilled offensive players on the planet. He had 64 points in 61 games before injuring his shoulder. His penchant for scoring big late-game goals is a huge difference maker. If he’s able to go out and contribute in this series, it’ll make Chicago that much more dangerous offensively.
The Pick: Blackhawks in 5
Nashville had a great season, but it seems like they’ve peaked too early. Rinne’s numbers were pedestrian down the stretch and the Predators will need him to be really, really solid to stay in this series. The Blackhawks have the experience that many on the Predators lack. With Corey Crawford playing well and the return of Patrick Kane to an already dangerous team, Chicago will be able to dispatch Nashville in five and await the winner of the Blues/Wild series.