No. 2 Seed Chicago Blackhawks vs. No. 7 Seed Nashville Predators
Storyline: A tale of two rivals woven for the first time in the postseason, as the always surprising Nashville Predators look to upend the Cup Final-favored Chicago Blackhawks.
Offense: You may notice a pattern in each of the major categories for this preview, as success comes in two distinctly opposite forms for the Predators and Blackhawks.
Chicago’s offense is young, fast, and incredibly talented.
The kids in the Windy City are living up to their potential, with big seasons from Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane highlighting a year that could easily have been centered around big contracts and mismanaged RFA signings.
Patrick Sharp delivered another solid season to solidify his star ability and five other Hawks, including the expensive Marian Hossa and the improving Troy Brouwer, netted at least 17 goals.
Though not nearly as applauded, Nashville’s offense is nothing to sneeze at. The Predators boast Swedish upstart Patric Hornqvist’s 30-goal season as a team high, yet others like Jason Arnott and Martin Erat find the back of the net when they absolutely need to.
Nashville’s secret weapon may well be Steve Sullivan, who played his first full and successful season since, well, since he left Chicago.
Though one would like to believe the teams are even on paper, 46 more goals for the Blackhawks say otherwise.
Defense: Nominees for the Norris Trophy don’t often come from the same team, yet one could make a case that both Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook have earned at least that much in a dominant year for the Blackhawks.
Their delicate style of play around their own net helped stifle offenses that could have easily had a shooting gallery and helped fans forget that the only thing bigger than Brian Campbell’s paycheck was his side-splitting injury from Alex Ovechkin.
And believe it or not, as good as Keith and Seabrook were, they were outdone by another young duo within their own division.
Shea Weber had already become a household name in the fantasy community with his big points and big hits, yet he would have his thunder stolen by U.S. born Ryan Suter.
Suter’s breakout season in the big leagues led to plenty of power play conversions and nearly 24 minutes of ice time, most on the team.
And remember all those trade rumors for potential free agent Dan Hamhuis? There’s likely a reason so many teams were interested in procuring the big man’s services.
Goaltending: Talk about something to prove. When this series kicks off on Friday, Antti Niemi and Pekka Rinne are expected to lead their respective teams on the ice and throughout the postseason and with good reason.
Niemi’s 26-7 record was the product of opportunity after his higher salaried teammate Cristobal Huet found new and interesting ways to lose hockey games for the second straight season.
Much like they did last season, the Hawks are expected to rotate a two-man system, keeping the pressure on their interim top guy to perform.
The Predators aren’t nearly as tactful, however, as Pekka Rinne cut his teeth for a full season and career high 58 games. Rinne made the most of his time as starter, winning 32 games with seven shutouts of his own.
Rinne’s sprawling, flop style has earned comparisons to Dominik Hasek with more control, which could be a good thing.
Key Players: Jonathan Toews proved to be a nightmare for the Predators to defend this year, netting 1 goal and 6 assists in an abbreviated four games against. Not to be outdone, Martin Erat held his own with 4 goals and 1 assist in five outings against Chicago.
They lost the season series to the Blackhawks 4-2.
Outcome: In a series that will frustrate the fair-weather and delight the die-hards, the Hawks are just a slight cut above the Preds, if only because they’ve invested more time (and money) into the team.
Blackhawks in seven games.