Preview: Huge Weekend Could Determine Central Division Crown

Memorable moments usually come when all the marbles are on the table at the end of the season.

This year, the Central Division could have its defining games played within 48 hours of Christmas. On Saturday and Sunday, the Blackhawks will play a crucial home-and-home back-to-back series with the second place Nashville Predators.

What makes these two games critical so early in the season is that Dec. 27 is the last time these two teams will face each other this season. The Hawks and Preds have already split four games this season, with the Hawks winning the first two and Nashville battling back with consecutive victories to square the season series.

The Hawks come in just four points ahead in the standings, so a weekend sweep could put Chicago in the drivers’ seat. A sweep for Nashville, though, would tie the teams in the standings and give the head-to-head edge to the Predators. A split will keep both cities watching the scoreboard for a few more months.

Through the four games already played this year, the games have been won by the defenses. The Predators struggled early in the season, and the Hawks caught them while they were down on Oct. 15 in Nashville. The Hawks won that first meeting 3-1, but the Hawks defense only allowed 13 shots to reach Cristobal Huet. What was most memorable in that first meeting was that Tomas Kopecky scored a goal; he hasn’t put the puck in the net since.

The second meeting, on Oct. 24, was Huet’s first shutout of the season. Dustin Byfuglien scored a goal in each of the first two games between the two teams, and Huet stopped 39 of 40 shots on net as the Hawks handled their business against a struggling opponent.

The Predators played the Blackhawks three times, half the season series, in October this year, and a stunning Pekka Rinne shutout in Nashville on Oct. 29 could be looked back upon as the turning point in the season for the Predators. Nashville came into that game 4-6-1 on the season, having lost seven out of nine before Rinne turned away 28 Chicago shots. Since that game, the Predators have been 17-6-2; the Blackhawks have been 17-5-2 in the same span of time.

The fourth matchup between the two teams didn’t happen until Dec. 4, and this time it was Dan Ellis slamming the door at the United Center. Ellis stoned 34 of 35 shots, allowing only a highlight-reel Jonathan Toews goal just under 12 minutes into the game, and the Predators stole a rare road win in Chicago. Huet struggled, allowing four goals on only 23 shots. This was the first game the Blackhawks played after Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith signed their extensions.

Coming into the weekend, the Blackhawks are led offensively by Kane, who leads the Hawks in scoring with 38 points (12 G, 26 A), including 12 points in his last nine games. Kane has only one point, an assist, in the four games against Nashville this season, though. Toews also comes into the game playing well, with six points in his last six games. Marian Hossa, who has only been active for one of the first four meetings, has 13 points (6 G, 7 A) in only 14 games so far.

Defensively, the story continues to be Keith for the Hawks. Not only has he played exceptionally well almost every night (he and Brent Seabrook weren’t their best against San Jose), but he has six points in the Hawks’ last four games. As we get closer to Jan. 1, when the final Olympic rosters are set, watch for more solid play from Keith and Seabrook as they both try to ensure their tickets to Vancouver in February.

Also playing well lately on the blue line for the Hawks has been Brian Campbell. Campbell has points in four of the Hawks last five games, and is plus-five in that span. His minutes have been increased, especially in the recent absence of Cam Barker, and he has rewarded the coaches with strong play on both ends.

Special teams could be a major factor this weekend. The Hawks defense has been great on the PK against Nashville so far this season, killing 12 of 13 advantages for the Predators. In December, the Blackhawks have successfully killed 31 of 32 power plays, a ridiculous 96.9 kill percentage. For the season, the Hawks are second in the NHL overall, killing 87 percent of opponents’ power plays. Nashville ranks 26th in the NHL, scoring on only 16.1 percent of their power play opportunities to date.

A major concern for the Hawks has been their own power play offense, which has disappeared in December. The Blackhawks have scored on only four of 39 power plays since going 2-4 against Columbus on Dec. 1. Despite their recent struggles, the Hawks are still 14th overall in the NHL with a 18.8 percent success rate on the power play. Nashville, on the other hand, is killing only 75.8 pecent of opponents’ power plays, ranking 28th in the NHL. This problem has been maginified for Nashville in December, as they have allowed a power play goal in nine of their 11 games; of course one of the two games in which they didn’t allow a goal was when they killed only one Blackhawks’ power play earlier this month.

Obviously, perhaps the biggest headline-grabber in Chicago has been the tandem of Huet and Antti Niemi in goal. Niemi shut out the Red Wings in Detroit on Wednesday, and Huet was the NHL’s top star for the previous week after posting consecutive shut outs of his own. Huet struggled against San Jose, but look to rebound in at least one of the games this weekend.

Nashville comes into the weekend with a 6-1-1 record in their last eight games, split evenly between Ellis and Rinne. Martin Erat has been hot, scoring six points in his last five games. He is tied for the team lead with 24 points, and leads the Preds with 12 goals. Despite missing the third game against Chicago at the end of October, Erat has been solid against the Hawks with two goals and an assist in three games this year.

If the Hawks leaders can stay hot and take advantage of the mediocre Nashville special teams, this weekend could open the road for the Blackhawks to own the division the rest of the way. Especially after consecutive shut outs of Detroit, this weekend could be a launching point to a great 2010 for the Blackhawks.

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