I suppose the short answer to my title question is, “No,” the Chicago Blackhawks will be prepared and ready for a skilled Nashville team to come into the United Center and play a game strong enough to grab two points on any given night.
Then, the converse question, “Will the Chicago Blackhawks surprise the Nashville Predators?” The answer to that, for me, leans towards “Quite possibly.” You see, this “Magic 8-Ball” approach to prognostication of the NHL playoffs is downright ridiculous. The parity of the league is such that on any given night, any team can win against any other. However, once 82 games are played and playoff rankings have been applied, pundits seem obliged to decide who’s REALLY in, and who’s on their way out. Nashville holds no chance against a mighty Chicago hockey team that goes for its fourth Stanley Cup in just eight years. Daunting challenge for an eighth seed team that could not muster much momentum heading into the post-season, although Chicago themselves lost their final four regular season games.
I can’t pick a winner. I’m a Preds season ticket holder. I have seen the ups, I have felt the downs, and I know that based on the season series between these two clubs, it’s a no-brainer for Chicago. But, I also know the Predators are a tricky team to judge. If this were a seven game series against any of the NON-playoff teams, I might go with one of them. After all, we saw Winnipeg and the New York Islanders give this team fits in the final week, with Connor Hellebuyck and Jaroslav Halak each looking like the second coming of Georges Vezina over the course of their contests vs. Nashville.
To beat Chicago:
1. Determine which team is going to battle. There are a number of players who may or may not be getting the nod in the opening game. It may seem unimportant, but the fourth line could be any number of six guys, and it needs to be nailed down. But, let’s start with the first line. With Forsberg and Arvidsson flanking Johansen over the final couple of months of the season, we saw the two wingers score some of the more determined goals of the season, and for all his soft defensive foibles, Johansen made some tremendous passes to spring these guys into action. However, there was a game when James Neal replaced Arvidsson, and with Arvy on line two, Craig Smith had a revelation in his game. Balancing out the attack and having Arvidsson play with Jarnkrok doesn’t bother me in the least. Of course Forsberg and Johansen, when neutralized, are liable to give the puck away far too much. Their defensive game must be sharper. What to do with Captain Mike Fisher, who is sorely needed in the lineup, but where? Assuming your four centers are Johansen, Fisher, Jarnkrok and Sissons, you are saying that veteran Vern Fiddler is either hurt, or just not good enough to crack this lineup, and I’m FINE with that. Fiddler played 20 games after his acquisition, and chipped in a single goal and no assists. While he did play with grit and won some faceoffs, having either Fisher OR Sissons in that role is a major upgrade. Fans joke about “regular season Colin Wilson,” and “playoff Colin Wilson.” There appears to be a difference. At least, based on the past two post-season efforts by Nashville, Wilson’s game appeared to elevate over his October through March play. This season saw Wilson record his career high in assists in a single season (23) and his goal production doubled from 6 to 12, though far off the 20 goal pace he provided in 2014-15. The enigmatic Smith is often lumped into the same category as Wilson, as each receive 4M paychecks to underachieve for large portions of the season. On a four year point decline (52-44-37-29), Smith saw his goal production dip to 12 this season after three consecutive 20+ campaigns. However, his play over the final few weeks of the season was strong and there’s no reason to think he would be excluded from the Game 1 lineup vs. Chicago. Kevin Fiala is a player who has proved to be a highly skilled forward that has shuttled in and out of Coach Laviolette’s doghouse, without suffering any real public humiliation. With Fiala, it’s been a numbers game, and of course with GM David Poile’s tinkering, adding depth guys like Fiddler and P.A. Parenteau around the deadline, Fiala sat further and further on the edge of the bubble. He was one of a handful of players who over the course of the season found themselves in the press box a game after actually scoring a goal. With Fiala, youth is on his side and he will be a part of the organization (hopefully) for the foreseeable future, but will he crack the opening lineup against the Hawks? I hope so. Parenteau, on the other hand, has been limited to just eight games in a Nashville sweater, and honestly, he’s been far more invisible than good or bad. A skilled scoring forward with liability issues in the defensive zone, it’s hard to say that beyond his NHL experience he brings more to the table than Fiala, who appears far more creative and therefore “higher risk/higher reward.” Will Lavy eschew veteran presence for youthful exuberance? Fact is, for Chicago, the youth thing is totally working and it would suck to watch Parenteau plod through a game with Fiala in a suit eating finger food in the visiting team suite, while Ryan Hartman (21 years old, 19 goals) and Nick Schmalz (20 years old, 28 points) supply depth scoring for Chicago. Throw a cantankerous Austin Watson, a veteran enforcer Cody McLeod, a career minor leaguer Harry Zolnierczyk, and the Milwaukee call-up, Pontus Aberg in the mix, and you have sixteen forwards fighting for twelve jobs.
Forsberg – Johansen – Neal
Smith – Jarnkrok – Arvidsson
Fiala – Fisher – Wilson
Watson – Sissons – ?
McLeod – Fiddler – Zolnierczyk – Parenteau – Aberg
On defense, the picture is slightly less murky:
Ellis – Josi
Subban – Ekholm
Irwin – ?
Bitetto – Hunt – Weber
I suppose if Weber is healthy, he steps in with Irwin, and Bitetto and Hunt are the guys on the outside looking in. But, if Weber is still hurt, do you go with grit and toughness (Bitetto) or the more mobile puckhandler (Hunt)?
Of course, in goal, we will be treated to Pekka Rinne, with maybe a side of the firepower of Pekka Rinne. While, Juuse Saros coninues to gather steam as the heir apparent to the crease in a couple of years, impatient fans appear ready to anoint him the starter immediately. Fortunately, Nashville’s brain trust know they have to place their faith in Rinne with an eye towards the future down the road apiece.
2. Create traffic in front of Crawford. Feet don’t fail me now. The Predators have been a terrible passing team this season. Unfortunately, this is a “stat” that goes un-kept throughout the league, but on any given night we have been forced to watch this team shoot themselves in the foot with ill-conceived breakout passes, poor zone attempts on the power play, and an inability to get the puck to a shooter in position to put the puck on net. Compound this by the number of times a puck handler has gone into the offensive zone all alone with no support rushing towards the net to gather up a potential rebound off an initial shot. Deposed Los Angeles Kings coach Darryl Sutter may not have been able to lead his troops into post-season battle this year, but he operated of over three quarters of the season without his all-World goaltender, Jonathan Quick. He did, however, team that lead the NHL in possession for the fourth consecutive season. If only a portion of that could rub off on Nashville, they would become a lethal, dominating team in this league. Giving the puck carrier an option (or TWO) when making decisions would go a long way towards furthering this team’s offensive capabilities. We’ve seen it dozens of times this season, and in seasons passed, where the opposition puts two or three men in the vicinity of the Preds crease as the shooter is about to unleash an attempt on goal. With bodies the size of Johansen’s, we should see an increase in possession time, as well as second and third efforts on net, creating more scoring. Tiring to watch a lone Predators puck carrier cruising into the opposition’s zone as his four skating teammates are peeling off for a line change, and the ensuing players are willing to stand back at the blue line while waiting for the inevitible change in possession.
3. Special teams need to be far more special. Because you can’t expect a team with Keith, Seabrook, Kane, Hossa and Toews to just lay down against their potentially seriously weaker opponents in this area. While both the power play and the penalty kill have had moments of superiority this season, those moments have been inconsistently few and far between. In fact, when all was said and done, the Predators could muster no better than 15th and 16th on the PK and PP respectively. “Hard Outs” on the penalty kill are necessary at the most critical of junctures. Too many times saw Predators indecision resulting in the opposition keeping a puck in the zone at the blue line, when a more forceful pass or clearing attempt would have spelled relief for the unit on the ice trying to kill the penalty. As for the power play, can we see a concerted effort to enter the offensive zone with some speed and a plan to not put three guys behind the net and two up at the points? Or, that nifty trick of a box and a guy in the middle of the opposition’s PK box, with the objective to try to break into the defense’s “inner sanctum” and get the puck to a guy who has four men surrounding him? Seriously, I’ve been at wit’s end trying to figure out who believes these systems work? They don’t work on any other team. In fact, they are rarely tried on other teams because they just make no sense. Don’t even get me started on the three defensemen, two forwards setup the team tried earlier last week on a couple of failed five on three possessions. Smarter decisions, quicker decisions, and movement of the feet are keys to making the special teams work against a very smart, well-disciplined Chicago team.
Starting Thursday we have a potentially epic seven-game-series against the chief rivals of all things Nashville hockey. Blackhawks will be on their game and ready to show Predators and their fans what the make up of this year’s Blackhawks team is about. It’s up to the Preds to crash the party, steal some thunder, and position themselves right where most fans thought they’d be at this time in the season: On the way to a destiny meeting with the Stanley Cup.