The Chicago Blackhawks won 50 games for only the second time in team history this season, but their reward isn’t exactly a pleasant one as they’ll have to face the Nashville Predators in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Blackhawks, who finished with the top overall seed in the Western Conference and secured home-ice advantage through the first three rounds of the playoffs, will have their hands full against a Nashville team that has had stretches of strong play this season.
The Predators haven’t been in top form lately, losing three of their final four games and five of their final seven, but they still have a well-balanced team that has gotten solid goaltending and some scoring punch even in the midst of losing games down the stretch.
The two teams have tangled before in the playoffs, and although the Predators have often gotten an early upper hand, the Blackhawks have come back and won in each of their last two playoff meetings in 2010 and 2015. In the 2010 series, the Predators and Blackhawks were tied at two games apiece going into Game 5 at the United Center, and Patrick Kane’s late short-handed equalizer and Marian Hossa’s dramatic overtime game winner propelled the Hawks to their first championship in nearly 50 years.
In the 2015 postseason, the two teams met again, and Nashville ended up chasing Corey Crawford from the series after a couple of rough performances. The Blackhawks did rebound with Scott Darling in net however, winning the series in six games and eventually making their way to their third Stanley Cup title in six years.
The Blackhawks obviously hope that the series will go in a similar direction this time around, but Nashville’s roster could pose some issues for the defensively suspect Hawks. With speed threats like Filip Forsberg, snipers like Viktor Arvidsson, and a slew of quality blue liners in Roman Josi, PK Subban, and Ryan Ellis, the Predators have a ton of weapons to put pressure on the Blackhawks, and pushing the tempo will likely be the name of the game to take advantage of the Blackhawks’ lack of speed on the blue line.
To counter that, expect the Blackhawks to activate their defense early and often, with players like Duncan Keith and Brian Campbell playing a key role in that regard. They will also use their centers as aggressive forecheckers to try to force turnovers, and they’ll get some reinforcements as Artem Anisimov is expected to return for the opening game of the playoffs after missing the last few weeks of the regular season with a lower body injury.
The Blackhawks will also hope to get some strong performances out of their young players, including top line left wing Nick Schmatlz and bottom six forwards Tanner Kero and Ryan Hartman. John Hayden could also give the Blackhawks a needed infusion of physicality in the lineup, so fans shouldn’t be surprised if he suits up for at least one game in the series.
Finally, Crawford will play a critical role, as he often has to make some big saves as the Blackhawks struggle to suppress shots. His positioning will be worth watching, as he has had a tendency to get indecisive in the crease in recent weeks. Crawford needs to be his usual aggressive self if the Blackhawks are going to win the series, coming out of the crease to challenge shots and staying fluid in his movements from post to post when he remains in the blue paint.
The series will likely get underway on Thursday night in Chicago, but the NHL will make the schedule official when they announce it on Sunday night.