Starting Friday, the Chicago Blackhawks begin their quest to bring Lord Stanley’s Cup home to Chicago by hosting division rival Nashville at the United Center. How do the two teams match-up? Let’s take a look.
The teams played six times this year, and the Blackhawks won four. In the season series, the Blackhawks outscored the Predators 14-12. The Hawks shut out the Preds once; the Preds shut out the Hawks once. Both teams were 6-3-1 in their last ten games before the playoffs.
For the total season, the Blackhawks ranked third in offense (3.20 goals/gm) and fifth in defense (2.48 goals against/gm) in the NHL. On the other side of the ice, the Predators ranked 18th in offense (2.65 goals/gm) and 14th in defense (2.70 goals against/gm) in the NHL.
Chicago’s power play converted 17.7 percent of their opportunities with a man advantage, ranking 16th in the NHL. Nashville penalty kill unit succeeded in killing the advantage 77.1 percent of the time, which ranked 28th in the NHL this year. For those that are doing the math, that’s the third-worst PK in the entire NHL.
Nashville’s power play converted 16.4 percent of their chances with an advantage, ranking 24th in the NHL. Nashville’s power play scored 47 goals this year. Chicago’s penalty kill ranked fifth in the NHL this year, killing 85 percent of opponent’s chances with a man advantage. Chicago also led the NHL with 13 short-handed goals.
Now take all of those season numbers and match-up numbers, rip them up, and throw them in the garbage.
When the powers-that-be put together the regular season schedule for the Blackhawks and Predators this year, for some reason the two teams played each other three times in October and three times in December. That’s it. The last time the Blackhawks and Predators played was December 27, and neither of these teams is anywhere close to where we were two days after Christmas.
Marian Hossa has only played in three of the six games between the two teams. Since entering the lineup in San Jose in late November, Hossa has been a dynamic force on the ice for the Hawks with 24 goals and 27 assists in only 57 games. Adding him to the mix for the Blackhawks is huge.
However, looking back at the season series between the Hawks and Preds should lead us to subtract another player: Brian Campbell. Campbell was second on the Blackhawks in average ice time in the six games against Nashville this year (23:04) and had a goal and assist on the power play among his four points. Obviously the Hawks will be without Campbell in the first round, and will instead be playing Dustin Byfuglien on the blue line. Byfuglien’s been solid since moving to defense, but tied Patrick Kane for the team lead in goals against Nashville this year with three.
Dave Bolland and Adam Burish were also non-factors in the season series. Burish tore his ACL in the preseason and didn’t play in any of the six games this year, while Bolland played in only the first three games before having back surgery in November. Bolland was pointless in over 17 minutes per game in those three games, but has been solid since returning from injury.
Jonathan Toews also missed two of the six games because of his concussion earlier in the season. Despite only playing in four games against the Predators, Toews led the Blackhawks in scoring against their first round foe with one goal and six assists (seven total points) and was +4 in the series. The reality that the Blackhawks have never played Nashville with a full compliment of forwards is a huge factor; having Toews and Bolland centering the top two lines is enormous.
Also consider that Cristobal Huet started five of the six games in the season series between the two teams, and played perhaps his best hockey against the Preds. Huet won three of his five starts against Nashville this year with an impressive .940 save percentage and astounding 1.41 goals against average. Since the Olympics, though, Huet has been an epic failure and hasn’t seen the ice very much.
The net in Chicago now belongs to rookie Antti Niemi, who has been good since the Olympics. Niemi is 9-3-3 with a 2.37 goals against average and .911 save percentage since the break, and won six of his last seven starts in the regular season. Niemi ranked second in the NHL with three shutouts after the Olympics.
However, for Nashville, the situation in net for the Preds has also improved. Pekka Rinne split the six starts against the Blackhawks with Dan Ellis this season as the two free-agents-to-be worked to win a contract extension. Rinne got the new paper, and has received the bulk of the starts in Nashville since the Olympics. Nashville appears to have spent their money wisely, too.
Rinne is the one goalie with more shutouts than Niemi since the Olympics (four), and has put up the best numbers of any starting goalie in the Western Conference since the break. A 12-4-1 record, 1.96 goals against average and .931 save percentage make Rinne perhaps the best chance Nashville has to beat the powerful Blackhawks in the first round.
Both teams have finally established a number one goalie, and that guy is playing well. The Blackhawks have dealt with some roster problems and weathered the storm to come out playing solid hockey at the end of the season, and will have as many as four games at the electric, standing room only United Center to take care of business. It’s going to be a long uphill climb for Nashville to win this series.