Nashville Predators forward Gabriel Bourque (57) pokes the puck away from Chicago Blackhawks right wing Marian Hossa (81), of Slovakia, in the first period of an NHL hockey game on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2012, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Tonight begins an utterly crucial stretch for the Hawks. They have four games this week, two against the Nashville Predators, with whom they are mired in a tango for the 4th seed in the West and home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. There is no time for slips or let-ups.
So it's probably not the time to be without your top two centers and your best defenseman.
But that's the problem the Hawks face, as Marcus Kruger and Jonathan Toews will miss out with concussions, and Duncan Keith begins his five-game ban. Can't say the Hawks haven't upped the degree of difficulty here.
Without Keith, the Hawks will shift Niklas Hjalmarsson to his spot alongside Brent Seabrook. These two have played together earlier in the year and some last year, with limited success. Defensively, they should be sound for the most part. They're both responsible and positionally are in the right place. It's with the puck that the problems arise, as neither can get out of trouble with their feet and Hjalmarsson especially gets yippy with the puck when under pressure. He can be turnover-rific. Neither can start or join the rush, which the Hawks count on a lot for their high-speed chase game. Seabrook gets bailed out by Keith's speed opening space for him, and he won't have that tonight. With the Preds high-enery way of forechecking and their excellent coach, expect them to attack this pairing a lot and try and cause a commotion.
WIth Kruger out, Brendan Morrison will skate between Patrick Sharp and Viktor Stalberg, but expect Sharp to take some shifts at center as well with the lineup being shuffled if the Hawks aren't generating enough offense. The only plus with Morrison is a higher ability to win a faceoff, which was a major issue against Vancouver.
As for the Preds, this is the second half of a back to back, having beaten Winnipeg at home last night. This has not been the best month for Nashville, having lost four of their last six and their previously air-tight defense springing leaks. Some of it has been attributed to injuries on the blue line, but it has more to do with goalie Pekka Rinne's play fading. Could be a slump, could be fatigue from 66 appearances this season. The Predators had better hope it's just the former, because they can't live without superior goaltending.
That's because the Preds are just OK at even-strength, and demand their goalie and special teams see them through. This is the league's best power play, but if that and the goalie aren't clicking, the Predators just don't have that big of a margin of error. Staying out of the box tonight is paramount.
The plan is always the same against Nashville. Match their work ethic, which could drop ever so slightly having played last night. Don't take penalties, and most of all be clean with the puck. This is a team that struggles to create its own offense 5-on-5 and needs mistakes and turnovers to breathe.
But doing it is different than saying it.