THE BLACKHAWKS WIN IF…
The Blackhawks are back atop the Central Division and Western Conference and find themselves as one of the post-season favorites once again. And it’s with good reason. Chicago still boasts one of the best core groups in the entire league with captain Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Artemi Panarin, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson, and it’s pretty darn difficult to poke any holes in the Blackhawks’ roster. The most important player for Chicago in the post-season is going to be goaltender Corey Crawford, though.
It’s been said time and again that Crawford gets less respect than he deserves, but he has been one of the best netminders in the league over the past few seasons, whether or not you’re of the mind he deserves to be there. While he has finished no higher than fifth in Vezina voting, his numbers show why he can be the somehow-underrated piece that propels the Blackhawks back to championship glory. Over the past four full seasons, starting in 2013-14, Crawford’s .930 save percentage at 5-on-5 is the fifth-best save of any starting goaltender. That .930 SP just so happens to be the exact mark he achieved during the 2016-17 season, too, putting him seventh in the league. More importantly, Crawford has the third-best high-danger SP this season, meaning he’s shutting down chances even when the defense in front of him breaks down.
Crawford’s ability to stymie opposition is going to be most important on the penalty kill, which has been one area of concern for the Blackhawks all season. Chicago’s abhorrent play down a man was a major talking point early in the year and, as the season closed, the Blackhawks finished 24th-ranked penalty kill. It is promising, however, that Chicago was up to 80 percent in the final two months of the season. Special teams can turn the tide of any series and even a power play that struggled as much as the Predators’ could feast on the man advantage if the Blackhawks can’t get their 5-on-4 play together.
But this is still the early rounds and the difference-maker could be something as seemingly simple as star power, which Chicago has in droves. Kane finished second in scoring with 89 points and only Art Ross winner Connor McDavid found the score sheet more in the final two months. Toews heated up in a big way down the stretch, as well, and Panarin blasted home 13 goals in his final 27 games. Add in the emergence of secondary scorers like Richard Panik, Nick Schmaltz, Ryan Hartman and the ever-present ability of Marian Hossa and the Blackhawks may be able to simply out-score the Predators en route to a series victory.
THE PREDATORS WIN IF…
If Crawford is the key for the Blackhawks, Pekka Rinne will likewise be of utmost importance to the Predators. And there isn’t all that much separating the two netminders. Rinne has had his struggles in recent years — his .908 SP in 2015-16 was the worst full season of his career — but he bounced back to post numbers in 2016-17 that are near identical to Crawford’s. In fact, their overall SP is even and Crawford’s edge at 5-on-5 is razor thin. Rinne is going to be tested often, too, so he’s going to have to be equal to the task against a Blackhawks team that likes to make the most of its opportunities.
The good thing is, despite a 1-4 regular season record against Chicago, the Predators actually showed the ability to slow down the Blackhawks’ offense and keep those chances to a minimum. In fact, at 5-on-5 during the season series, Nashville had the edge in Corsi for (53.7 percent), scoring chances for (55.6 percent) and high-danger chances for (64.2 percent). Goals for at 5-on-5 is the only category where the Predators failed to have an edge.
The Nashville defense plays the biggest part in slowing down the Chicago attack, and the top four is as sound as any in the league. Roman Josi is the perennially underrated heart and soul of the blueline, while newcomer P.K. Subban is the flash that could provide game changing scoring ability from the back end. This is to say nothing of Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm, either. The combinations on the blueline are excellent and that the Predators can trot out those four across the bulk of a 60-minute contest could shut down any chance of a sustained attack from the Blackhawks.
It will then fall on the shoulders of Nashville’s stars to capitalize when they get chances of their own. Filip Forsberg had hot and cold stretches throughout the campaign, but it’s a good sign for the Predators that he’s entering the playoffs having scored 16 goals in his past 30 games. He had a tough post-season with only two goals and four points in 14 games in 2015-16, but Forsberg lit up the Blackhawks for four goals and six points in six games in 2014-15. Nashville will be hoping for more of that. With James Neal, Ryan Johansen, Mike Fisher and Viktor Arvidsson providing secondary scoring, the Predators might be able to get some favorable matchups and make life difficult for Crawford.
Blackhawks: How healthy is Artem Anisimov? The Blackhawks’ pivot has missed the past 13 games with a lower-body injury and that’s concerning for Chicago. When he’s healthy, he is one-third of arguably the most dominant line in hockey with Kane and Panarin. If he’s not entirely healthy, though, Chicago is going to have to continue to use a fill-in up the middle on their second line. A healthy Anisimov provides not only offense, but two-way ability that no pivot beyond Toews possesses. Anisimov isn’t likely to take over a game, but his presence changes the Blackhawks’ at both ends of the ice.
Predators: Forsberg is the consistent scoring star that has game-breaking ability, but the rise of Viktor Arvidsson has been marvellous this season. After scoring eight goals and 16 points in 2015-16, Arvidsson went off for 31 goals and 61 points in his sophomore year. He wasn’t much of a contributor in the past post-season, scoring one goal — which happened to be an overtime winner — and two points in 14 games, but this time around he’ll be asked to play a much larger role in the offense. If Chicago pays too much attention to Forsberg, Johansen, Neal and Fisher, Arvidsson could be the story of the series.
With the amount of premier blueliners playing in this series, it’s hard not to argue that the key here will be on the backend. Duncan Keith is used to being the best D-man on the ice in most games he plays, but I’m not sure that’ll be the case in this series. By all accounts (unless you’re stuck in the 90s and still use +/-) P.K. Subban has had a superb first season for the Preds this year and appears better than Keith at pushing play and overall value while supplying similar amounts of scoring (with a lot less power-play time in a down year to boot). The two have played tight anytime they’ve squared off in the past, but Chicago will need Keith to outclass Subban here, because the edge for the other five D-men almost definitely swings in Nashville’s favor. Chicago is deeper everywhere else, but everything starts on the back-end and that’s where the Preds have an edge, starting from the very top. (Dom Luszczyszyn)
BLACKHAWKS in six games.