2010 NHL Playoff: Predators and Blackhawks, First Round Preview

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2010 NHL Playoff: Predators and Blackhawks, First Round Preview
Brian Kersey/Getty Images

The Nashville Predators will take on Central Division rival Chicago Blackhawks in a first ever playoff meeting between the two teams. The series begins Friday night at the United Center. During the regular season, the Blackhawks were victorious in four of the six contests with the Predators.

If one were to view this matchup on paper, the advantage would go to the Hawks. This series will not be played on paper, but will be a war waged on the ice between two familiar rivals.

So how do the two teams compare?

We will look at goaltending, defensive corp, offensive firepower, coaching, and intangibles.

 

GOALTENDING

Pekka Rinne against Antii Niemi, a battle of two Finnish countrymen, both getting their first taste of playoff experience. This matchup of two goalies that zero playoff experience will be interesting to see how each handles the pressure of the playoff race.

Both goalies came on strong at the mid-point of the season to claim their respective team's starting job in net. Here is how they stack up statistically:

 

Pekka Rinne     32-16-5     2.53 GAA     .910 Save %

 

Antti Niemi       26-7-4       2.25 GAA     .912 Save %

 

Statistically, this is a very even matchup. Athletic goalies that have played solid hockey and are fundamentally sound in net.

The difference will be the confidence and steadiness that each will bring to the net.

Predator fans know that the team in front of Rinne play with a great deal of confidence when he is net. The Hawks have adapted to Niemi in the net after he won the starting job from Cristobal Huet, and they too, are playing a confident game in front of him.

Rinne is playing with a tremendous amount of confidence right now, and it has translated into a strong stretch run to the playoffs for the Predators. Rinne is often called upon to keep his team in very low scoring affairs and has thrived in that type of pressure.

 

Advantage:     Even

 

DEFENSE

The Predators boast a very solid blue line, with Olympians Shea Weber and Ryan Suter anchoring the defensive corps. The pairings of Dan Hamhuis, Cody Franson and Francis Buillon/Kevin Klein have been solid.

Should Dennis Grebeshkov be able to return from injury, he will add depth to the blue line.

Chicago has some stalwarts on the defensive unit as well, led by their Canadian Olympic team members Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith. The defense of Chicago has taken a hit with the injuries to Brian Campbell and Kim Johnsson, who was acquired at the trade deadline from Minnesota. Brent Sopel and Nick Boynton have stepped in to take more minutes and provide solid play.

 

 

Comparing the top six defensemen reveals statistical similarities:

 

Nashville

 

Weber          78 GP     16G     27A     43 points     +/- 0

 

Suter             82 GP     4G      33A     37 points      +/- +4

 

Hamhuis        78 GP     5G      19A     24 points      +/- +4

 

Franson         61 GP     6G      15A     21 points      +/- +15

 

Buillon           81 GP     3G      8A       11 points      +/- +5

 

Klein             81 GP     1G      10A      11 points      +/- -13

 

 

Chicago

 

Keith             82 GP    14G     55A      69 points     +/- +21

 

Seabrook      78 GP     4G      26A       30 points     +/- +20

 

Hjarlmarsson 77 GP     2G      15A       17 points      +/- +9

 

Sopel             73 GP    1G       7A         8 points        +/- +3

 

Boynton         49 GP    1G       7A         8 points        +/- +5

 

Hendry           43 GP    2G       6A         8 points        +/- +5

 

The top two defensemen for the Hawks have had a stellar season, as have the top D pairing of the Predators.

The advantage for the Predators will be the fact that the second and third pairings have more game experience and have been somewhat more productive than the similar defensive pairings for the Blackhawks.

 

Advantage:     Predators

 

FORWARDS

The Blackhawks offense is explosive, led by Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. All the forwards for Chicago bring speed and talent to the ice, and these two stars are augmented by Marian Hossa, Kris Versteeg, and Patrick Sharp.

By contrast, the predators present a balanced attack that can produce points from all four lines. The Predators have been characterized as scoring by committee, with ten players tallying 30 or more points.

The Predators are lead by Patric Hornqvist, who had 30 goals this season while Patrick Kane lead Chicago with 30 goals. The comparison of the top six forwards for each team highlights the disparity between the offensive production:

 

Nashville

 

Hornqvist         80 GP     30G     21A     51 points

 

Sullivan            82 GP     17G     34A     51 points

 

Erat                 74 GP      21G     28A     49 points

 

Arnott              63 GP     19G     27A      46 points

 

Dumont            74 GP     17G     28A      45 points

 

Legwand          82 GP     11G     27A      38 points

 

 

Chicago

 

Kane                82 GP     30G     58A     88 points

 

Toews              76 GP     25G     43A     68 points

 

Sharp               82 GP     25G      41A     66 points

 

Hossa               57 GP     24G     27A      51 points

 

Versteeg           79 GP     20G     24A      44 points

 

Brouwer           78 GP     22G     18A      40 points

 

The Hawks have the ability to score prolifically throughout their lineup. The Predators are much more workmanlike in their offensive game. Where the Hawks can score highlight reel goals and tie a defense in knots, the Predators are a grind it out offense and create scoring chances off rebounds and winning battles for the puck.

 

Advantage:     Blackhawks

 

COACHING

Both Joel Quenneville and Barry Trotz are proven coaches and excellent bench bosses.

Both manage the game well. Trotz has the ability to coax the most out of the talent he has and has done a masterful job of getting a squad with middle of the road talent back to the playoffs.

Quenneville has managed a very talented team well, keeping their focus on the ice and satisfied with playing time. It would be easy to say that Quenneville is the better of the two coaches, but when you look at the talent on the ice and the corresponding record, the argument can be made that Trotz has done the better job of coaching.

At the start of the season, the conventional wisdom was that Chicago would contend for the Conference crown and the Predators would be out of the playoffs. Conventional wisdom is batting 50%.

 

Advantage:     Nashville

 

INTANGIBLES

Special teams and faceoffs can often decide the outcome of a game or a series. The teams compare as follows:

 

Penalty Kill:     Chicago 85.2%     Nashville 77.1%

 

Power Play:     Chicago 17.6%     Nashville 16.4%

 

Faceoffs:          Chicago 52.3%     Nashville 49.2%

 

There are other intangibles to factor into the equation. Nashville won 28 one goal games this past season. That is significant because it gives the Predators a sense of confidence in a tight contest, as many playoff games become.

The major hurdle that the Predators have to get over is winning a road playoff game. In four previous trips to the playoffs, the Predators are yet to win a road playoff game.

For this team to have any chance of advancing to the second round, the Predators are going to have to get this monkey off their back. Should the Predators falter in the first two games of the series, then it will be difficult for them to overcome that deficit and win the series.

There are several young players for the Predators that play key roles that have never experienced a playoff.

How they react to the pressure of a playoff series and the games played in front of a large and vocal home crowd for the Blackhawks will be an important factor in the possibility of winning this series.

Perhaps being young and not knowing better will be a good thing for players like Cody Franson, Colin Wilson, Cal O'Reilly, and Nick Spaling.

 

Advantage:     Slight Edge to the Blackhawks

 

The series will hinge on three factors for the Predators: they must get outstanding goaltending from Pekka Rinne; the defense has to contain the potent Blackhawk forwards; and the offense has to produce.

Of these factors, the one that is most questionable is the offensive production. It is critical that the top six forwards step up and be productive. In fact, their production has to improve from the regular season.

Steve Sullivan, Patric Hornqvist, Jason Arnott, J.P. Dumont, and Marty Erat have to shoot often and finish their chances. The Predators also have to continue to get timely goals from third and fourth line players like Marcel Goc, Joel Ward, and (hopefully) David Legwand.

If the offense does not produce, it will be a short series and another early exit for the Predators.

So who will win this series? Time to make the prediction and put the reputation on the line.

Conventional wisdom says that this is a series that the Blackhawks should win easily. I believe conventional wisdom is wrong.

The Predators will get their first road win in one of the first two games in Chicago. The defense and goaltending will stymie the potent Blackhawk offense. You can call this a homer pick, and it probably is, but my view is that the Predators pull the first-round upset and take the series in six games.

 

 

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