The Chicago Blackhawks are in for a stern test when they go up against the Nashville Predators in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and although both teams struggled down the stretch, the series still has the potential to be the most compelling one of the bunch.
With the series essentially a toss-up between the two teams, there is a group of players that we’d like to focus our attention on, because their performance will have a direct impact on the Blackhawks’ chances of advancing to the second round for the third consecutive year. These five players will be key on both sides of the ice, and if they can play well, then Chicago has a great chance of winning.
When Bickell signed a four-year contract with the Blackhawks, it was largely assumed that they were paying him for playoff performance. After all, in his career he averages well under half a point per game, and he only has 65 career goals in 359 NHL regular season games.
When the playoffs come around, he is an entirely different animal. He scores nearly twice as often during the postseason as he does during the 82-game slate (.35 goals per game, compared to .18 in the regular season), and his assist numbers tick up slightly as well. A good deal of credit for that has to go to his placement on a line with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews during the 2012-13 playoff run, but Bickell has shown that he can leverage his physicality effectively and get rebound goals from in close to the net.
The Blackhawks will definitely need the winger to do that during this series, as Nashville is a team that can outmuscle just about anyone on the ice.
One of the few criticisms of Hossa’s career with the Blackhawks has been that he hasn’t been at his best in the postseason for the team. Some numbers don’t back that conclusion up, as his assists per game number of .51 is slightly higher than his regular season average of .48, but where the criticism begins to take root is in his goal scoring, where he scores at only half the rate (.19 goals per game, compared to .37 goals per game in the regular season).
The Blackhawks have had some serious issues scoring in recent weeks, so Hossa has got to make sure that he doesn’t have a repeat performance of last year’s playoff run. He only scored twice in 19 games for the Blackhawks in 2014, and he’ll have to do a lot better than that this time around.
Before Oduya went down with an injury in late February, he was playing some of the worst hockey of his tenure with the Blackhawks. Whether he was pinching in on plays and exposing the Hawks’ defense to counter-attack, or failing to clear the zone when opportunities presented themselves, the defenseman clearly didn’t have his A-game going, and the Hawks’ defense was struggling as a result.
Once he came back on March 12, things looked completely different for him. He looked rested and refreshed after the time off, and his decision-making and skill level on the ice were infinitely better. A lot of that had to do with his reunion with Niklas Hjalmarsson, and the duo looked good on the ice during that stretch
If the Blackhawks are going to keep a lid on the Predators’ transition game, they are going to need guys like Oduya to step up. He’ll be the key line of defense as forwards break up the ice to get stretch passes from the skilled blue liners that the Predators put on the ice, and if he can play like he has been in recent weeks, the team will be a lot better off for it.
While players like Kris Versteeg (one goal, two assists in his last 20 games) have been struggling mightily over the home stretch of the season, Richards has been faltering as well. An injury knocked him out for the final three games of the year, but in the final 20 games that he played, Richards only picked up six points as the Hawks’ offense continued to struggle.
Now, Richards will be reunited with Patrick Kane for the opening series of the playoffs, and he will be a key component on a line that has got to provide some scoring punch for the team. The top line is going to be busy playing as defensive stoppers at times against Nashville’s talented defensive pairings, so the second line will need to score. That means Richards will have to facilitate at times and at other times get rebound chances in the slot when Versteeg and Kane get shots on goal.
While some of the other players on our list have been playing poorly or haven’t performed well in the postseason, Seabrook is a guy that has actually had a solid season for the Hawks. The team’s defense as a whole has been good (with admittedly weak parts like Michal Rozsival and David Rundblad preventing them from being even better), and Seabrook’s play has been a big part of the reason why as he has used his physical approach to the game and ability to occasionally pitch in offensively to help out.
He’ll need to keep displaying both of those traits as the playoffs begin in Nashville. The Predators are a hard-hitting team, and while it may be tempting for Seabrook to throw his weight around, his bigger responsibility will be to keep a lid on guys like Filip Forsberg and Mike Fisher as they work their way up the ice.