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Everything’s going right for the Predators, but don’t be so surprised

Nashville lost four of five games against Chicago in the regular season, but there were signs this Predators team could take down the mighty Blackhawks and it all seems to have clicked at the right time.

Heading into the first-round of the post-season, there were a number of matchups that were of the too-close-to-call variety. Chief among those was the meeting that was set between the Chicago Blackhawks and Nashville Predators. Sure, in terms of the standings, the two teams weren’t all that close— the Blackhawks were the West’s best, the Predators the second wild-card team — but on-ice, the thought was the series would be much closer than some expected.

Even still, it appeared the difference-maker could be the same as it has been for the past several seasons no matter who the Blackhawks were playing. This is a star-laden lineup with Stanley Cup experience and more than enough fire power to out-duel any team on any given night. With Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith as the cornerstones, the thought among a great many pundits was this Blackhawks team would manage to take the series even if it went to six or seven games.

While the option for a six- or seven-game series victory is still on the table for Chicago, few would have expected that the Predators would enter Game 3 holding a 2-0 series lead, nor would it be expected that the Blackhawks’ chances would look so bleak after a pair of home games. 

But maybe we shouldn’t be all that surprised that Nashville has been able to handle Chicago in the way they have through the first two games of the series.

When writing our first-round previews, one of the keys to the series we touched upon was the Predators’ ability to control the flow of the contests against the Blackhawks this season. One of the foundations of Chicago’s success over the past several years has been a skilled possession game, but against Nashville this season, there’s been a role reversal. Despite a 4-1 record against the Predators during the regular season, the Blackhawks managed a Corsi for of 46.3 percent, shots for percentage of 44.2 percent, managed only 44.4 percent of the scoring chances and a mere 35.8 percent of the high-danger chances at 5-on-5. Still, Chicago’s stars powered them to a near 60 percent goals for total, which translated to the favorable regular season record.

But in Game 1 of the series, a strong performance at 5-on-5 was nullified by Pekka Rinne — more on him in a second — and Game 2 saw the Predators get back to dominating the possession game and earning the bulk of the scoring opportunities. And now, across the seven times the two teams have met this campaign, there’s not a single major advanced statistical category in which the Blackhawks have the edge. That might be why this third time around for Nashville, after having dropped first-round series to Chicago in 2010 and 2015, stands to be different.

One of the prime contributors to the Predators’ ability to slow down the Blackhawks’ attack is the breadth of talent on the back end. While that has been the staple in Nashville for a few seasons at this point, the difference between this campaign and 2015 is age and experience. Roman Josi is as steady as ever, but both Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm are older, more experienced and ready to take on a much greater role. Add in P.K. Subban, who brings an element different from that of former Predators captain and Blackhawks foe Shea Weber, as well Yannick Weber and the underrated Matt Irwin and there’s a group of six solid defenders that can shut down Chicago’s attack like never before.

The first two tilts of the series were impressive instances of Nashville shutting down the middle of the rink and turning the puck up ice in a hurry. The Predators seemed to smother the Blackhawks in the neutral zone, giving even the slipperiest of skaters such as Kane less than a half-stride to work with at times. That was especially the case in the second game of the series, but there were times in the early parts of Game 1 where Chicago looked baffled at how to beat Nashville between the bluelines. In that way, this defense has shown it’s more able to slow the Blackhawks than in the past.

And that brings us back to Rinne. Some may have given the pre-series edge in goal to the Blackhawks. After all, the same experience and winning pedigree applies to Corey Crawford as it does the rest of the Chicago roster. The fact is, though, that the two netminders were about as evenly matched as could be coming into the best-of-seven. 

Both had .918 save percentages at all strengths with Rinne boasting a slight edge with a 2.42 goals-against average to Crawford’s 2.55 mark. At 5-on-5, Crawford won the battle, but his .930 SP was faintly better that the .929 SP Rinne posted. Few fingers will get pointed Crawford’s way through the first two games of the series, but a lot of praise should be directed at his counterpart. Rinne has done an incredible job at stifling the few chances Chicago does get. The Blackhawks have mustered 18 high-danger chances in two games and Rinne has snuffed each one out.

Rinne’s play combined with a suffocating defensive structure only gives the Predators the opportunity to win if they capitalize when they get chances of their own, though, but not even that has been a concern. Nashville has been out-chancing Chicago and finishing when it matters. 

The top scorers have come through for the Predators — Viktor Arvidsson’s early goal didn’t seem a backbreaker in Game 1, but it stood as the game-winner — and it seems only a matter of time before the always-dangerous Filip Forsberg finds a spark. But it’s not just the main threats who are providing. Game 2 saw Nashville get offense from all over the depth chart. Ellis opened the scoring, top-line pivot Ryan Johansen scored his first and bottom-sixers Harry Zolnierczyk, Colton Sissons and Kevin Fiala provided the additional tallies. So if this series breaks down to a battle of depth, it’s the Predators who oh-so-clearly have the edge right now.

One would be remiss to write the Blackhawks off yet. The star power Chicago boasts isn’t going away and the Blackhawks have dug themselves out of holes equally as deep before. However, this Predators team is unlike any the three-time Cup champions have had to play prior. They’re older, deeper and more prepared to take on these Blackhawks, the evidence of which has been abundantly clear through the first two games of the series. 

And if Nashville keeps it up, the third time stands to be the charm when it comes to first-round meetings with Chicago.

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