Nashville is coming into the playoffs with three straight losses, but the only team in the West with a longer losing streak heading into the post-season is Chicago who have fallen in four in a row. The Predators are going to have to rely on Pekka Rinne while Chicago will need their offensive depth to shine.
HOW THEY WIN
PREDATORS: Replacing coach Barry Trotz with Peter Laviolette transformed Nashville from a counterstriker into an attacking team. The result was the Preds’ best goal production in four years. They lack a superstar up front, but rookie Filip Forsberg has flashed that kind of ability. The rest of Nashville’s forwards provide offense by committee. A more aggressive approach has made Nashville a better possession team and thus better defensively, as opponents can’t score without the puck. The Preds are relatively faceless up front, but it’s the opposite from the net out. Goalie Pekka Rinne bounced back from his 2013-14 hip problems with a stellar year. Nashville’s greatest strength: its blueline, led by superstar Shea Weber, who does everything well. Partner Roman Josi remains a secret stud. Seth Jones, Ryan Ellis, Cody Franson and Mattias Ekholm round out a versatile top six that oozes puck-moving ability.
BLACKHAWKS: The uber-experienced Blackhawks are loaded with multi-championship players, from Jonathan Toews to Marian Hossa, and the majority of their 2013 Stanley Cup roster is intact. They don’t panic under pressure, as they showed last year rallying from a 2-0 series deficit in the first round to knock out St. Louis. Chicago keeps teams off the scoresheet so well because its deep D-corps, led by Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, pushes play toward the other team’s net. The Hawks crack the NHL’s top three in Corsi Close a third straight season. Goaltender Corey Crawford only has to be good and not great. The Hawks score a lot at even strength because of their tremendous depth. One of Antoine Vermette and Brad Richards is the third-line center for the playoffs. Coach Joel Quenneville can deploy championship-caliber checkers Andrew Shaw and Marcus Kruger as low as the fourth line.
HOW THEY LOSE
PREDATORS: Nashville doesn’t yet have a true first line. Its top forwards provide something closer to second-line production, especially factoring in how much they’ve regressed in the second half. Forsberg and Mike Ribeiro tanked after averaging almost a point per game through the new year. James Neal was a 40-goal man in Pittsburgh, but, while he’s still a skilled power forward, his numbers aren’t the same without his old superstar center Evgeni Malkin. The Predators’ D-corps is enviable, but no playoff team should ask blueliners to be its most reliable scorers. A game-breaking sniper would make a world of difference. Rinne, 32, also runs the risk of wearing down. He’s battled knee problems the past couple months, and he hasn’t shouldered a playoff workload since 2012. His second half numbers, while good, pale in comparison to what he did from October to December.
BLACKHAWKS: Note the conspicuous absence of superstar Patrick Kane in the “how they win” section. He’s out with a broken collarbone, slated to return in mid-to-late May. That means Chicago must win two playoff series without No. 88 to have any shot at his services, and there’s no guarantee he’s healed by then. Not only is Kane one of the league’s elite offensive weapons, but his elite stickhandling and skating also help him diffuse opposing attacks because he can carry the puck out of trouble. Chicago’s power play also runs through Kane and really struggled down the stretch without him. The Hawks minus Kane simply aren’t the same team. Losing him puts pressure on captain Toews to score more. He’s gifted offensively but gives away 10 or 15 points a year for the sake of his two-way game. Toews must perform more like a high-end point producer until Kane returns.
GOALIE ZONE by Jamie McLennan
PREDATORS: Pekka Rinne just doesn’t have a weakness in his game. What are his assets? His size (6-foot-5) and agility; his unreal glove hand; his puckhandling abilities; his demeanor. He’s an intimidating goaltender, and I talk to a lot of shooters who don’t see any net on him. Like Carey Price, he’s the whole package, but they’re not quite the same. Rinne is a little more active, whereas Carey is calmer. Pekka’s rebound control is amazing. He tries to catch everything. He wants to do something with the puck when it comes his way and not just stop it.
BLACKHAWKS: Corey Crawford is a battler. Sometimes he’ll make a really ugly save, but it’s because he’ll throw everything he’s got at it. If he’s making a side-to-side save that maybe most goalies stop with their right pad, Crawford’s whole body will be there instead of the pad. He just doesn’t give up on shots, and his Hawks teammates love him because they know he wants to be a difference-maker and isn’t afraid to play. The only thing he gets into trouble with sometimes is his rebounds. He’ll make the first save, but it’s the readjustment that’s an issue.
PREDATORS: Filip Forsberg has enjoyed a spectacular rookie season. Still, there’s playoff pool bust potential here. The rigors of his first full NHL campaign have worn him down. He was among the league’s top scorers through December, but his production took a nosedive after that. The physical toll of the post-season might drain him further.
BLACKHAWKS: Patrick Kane is the ultimate boom-bust pick. If you believe Chicago will still be alive when he returns from his broken collarbone, he can produce in one or two rounds what many do in a full post-season. Remember, though, you can only draft him if you predict Chicago reaches the Western Conference final and beyond.
KEY MATCHUP by Dom Luszczyszyn Among most fans, Duncan Keith and Shea Weber are considered two of Canada’s best defensemen, so seeing them battle head-to-head will definitely be a treat. The two have seen a lot of each other over the past five seasons and the matchup has been very even. Since Ryan Suter left Nashville, Weber’s numbers have been interesting. He always looks great by the eyes, but the numbers don’t seem to align with that perception, especially when putting him side-by-side with Keith. Weber has a higher relative goal rate meaning he may have some effect on the quality of chances, but Nashville generally controls the puck more when Weber is on the bench. He also allows almost six more shot attempts than Keith per hour.
THN PREDICTION: Chicago in six.
READ THN’S OTHER ROUND 1 PREVIEWS IN OUR STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF FEED.