It’s that time of year again: the Stanley Cup playoffs are upon us. The Nashville Predators have scratched and clawed their way into the second wild-card spot and find themselves in a familiar position in the first round. They will open the postseason in the Windy City against their division rivals, the Chicago Blackhawks, for the third time in the last decade. In the previous two series, the Blackhawks came out on top in six games each time. This season, Chicago took four out of five from the Predators.
During the regular season, the Blackhawks compiled a 50-23-9 record, good for the top spot in the Central Division and the Western Conference. The Hawks have home-ice advantage in the series, which should bode well for them, as they finished 26-10-4 at the United Center. They are no pushovers away from the Windy City either, as they went 24-13-5.
The Blackhawks finished the year on a bit of a skid, losing four straight to close it out. However, this streak can also be attributed to coach Joel Quenneville’s plan of resting players with a postseason berth already wrapped up. Do not be fooled, this is a dangerous team that has only gotten better throughout the year. Now, let’s break down the Blackhawks piece-by-piece to give Predators fans an idea of who they will be facing in round one.
The Blackhawks’ roster is littered with strong forwards, ranging from rookies to seasoned veterans. The top line includes captain Jonathan Toews (58 points, plus-7) at center, along with rookie Nick Schmaltz (28 points, plus-10) and Richard Panik (44 points, plus-14). Toews experienced an uncharacteristically slow start to the season, but flipped the script in the second half and has been back to his old form. He has made a habit out of coming up big during crunch time, especially in the postseason. Schmaltz has been strong in his rookie campaign and benefits greatly from being paired with a great passer like Toews. Panik has been the most improved player for the Hawks this season after a less-than-stellar 2015-16.
The second line does not get any easier for opponents, as it includes three of the top four goal scorers on the team. Artem Anisimov (45 points, plus-9) mans the center position, with Artemi Panarin (74 points, plus-18) and the always dangerous Patrick Kane (89 points, plus-11) on either side.
The Hawks are happy to see Anisimov returning in time for the playoffs after missing the last four weeks with a left foot injury. The Russian was putting a career year before being sidelined, so he should be ready to roll once he hits the ice. As for the wingers, Panarin posted another 30-goal campaign in only his second year and Kane has been Kane once again. The Predators should be on high alert when last year’s Rookie of the Year and MVP, respectively, are on the ice.
The third and fourth lines have a nice mix of the old and new mentioned before. Marcus Kruger (17 points, plus-7) holds down the center spot with rookie Ryan Hartman (31 points, plus-13) to his left and crafty veteran Marian Hossa (45 points, plus-7) on the third line. Hartman has been the Hawks’ rookie of the year in 2016-17, falling only one goal short of 20 for the season. Hossa joined the 500-goal club and has experienced a resurgence in his 19th professional season.
What the Blackhawks’ fourth line lacks in experience and scoring, they make up for with tons of potential. Rookie center Tanner Kero (16 points, plus-15) is joined by fellow rookie John Hayden (four points, plus-3) and feisty veteran Jordin Tootoo (three points, minus-6). All three have only seen limited action this season, but they provide solid two-way play for the Hawks that will be critical in this series.
Unlike the forwards, the Hawks’ defensemen practically all have experience playing deep into the playoffs. Their top defensive pairing of Duncan Keith (53 points, plus-22) and Niklas Hjalmarsson (18 points, plus-12) features two players who have been key members of the last three Stanley Cup-winning Blackhawks’ teams. Keith, last season’s Norris Trophy winner, has not shown any signs of slowing down as he finished fifth amongst all defensemen in points. He also added 107 blocked shots, as he is never afraid to give up his body to make a play. The same can be said for Hjalmarsson, who led the team with 181 blocked shots.
The second defensive pairing is made up of Brent Seabrook (39 points, plus-5) and Johnny Oduya (2 points, minus-2), another duo with tons of experience in the playoffs. Seabrook had a down year goal-wise, but can still rip one-timers with the best of them. He has come up with big goals time and again for the Hawks, including a series-clincher against Detroit in Game 7 of the Western Conference Semifinals back in 2014. Oduya was re-acquired at the trade deadline from Dallas, which left him with only 15 games to play in the regular season. The veteran will be key to the Blackhawks’ defensive depth, which is much improved from last season.
The third and final defensive pairing places veteran Brian Campbell (17 points, plus-12) with second-year defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk (16 points, plus-17). Campbell, much like Oduya, was re-acquired from the Florida Panthers and has stepped right back into his former role with the Hawks. He provides them with depth and solid play on both ends. Van Riemsdyk has improved from last season, jumping up from minus-5 to plus-17, which is good for third on the team. He also ranks fourth in blocked shots with 100, only trailing Hjalmarsson, Seabrook, and Keith. Not bad company for a 26-year-old in only his second full year.
The Blackhawks’ top man between the pipes is Corey Crawford. He posted a 32-18-4 record with a 2.55 GAA and .918 save percentage in 55 games played. Early in the season, Crawford looked as great as ever, but an appendectomy sidelined him for most of December.
Since returning from the operation, he has shown signs of returning to that dominant form but has struggled along the way. Luckily for the Hawks, and maybe unluckily for the Predators, the final stretch of the year saw Crawford returning to the form that had made him so successful in the early going. If he does show signs of weakness, coach Joel Quenneville does not need to worry too much.
Scott Darling, the Blackhawks’ backup goaltender, is one of the best in the league in that role. During Crawford’s recovery time, Darling took over and provided strong play in net. In 32 games this season, Darling went 18-5-5 with a 2.38 GAA and .924 save percentage. When given the opportunity, Darling has made many brilliant saves and been able to save games for the Hawks with his play. He also has experience against the Predators in the postseason, as he took over for a struggling Crawford during the 2015 first-round matchup. Darling was able to lead the Hawks to victory in that series. In either case, the Blackhawks are usually confident in their goalkeepers’ ability.
The Blackhawks’ penalty kill got off to a fairly horrendous start this season, but has rebounded since the All-Star Break (77 percent). However, this still drops them into the bottom half among the rest of the league. The Hawks also ranked dead last in shorthanded goals, scoring only once all season. The arrival of Oduya from the Lone Star State should help improve the penalty kill, but the Blackhawks must improve on this facet quickly or else they could find themselves in a heap of trouble.
“Both of our special teams can be better and they have to be better down the stretch and in the playoffs if we want to keep playing for a long time this postseason,” captain Jonathan Toews said. “Penalty kill is a big part of that. Obviously we had some great goaltending across the board but there’s always room for improvement.” (Chris Hine/Chicago Tribune)
On the power play, the Hawks have also been down from their usually stellar performance. They are only converting on 18 percent of their opportunities, the third-lowest percentage among playoff teams. The power-play unit of Panarin, Toews, Kane, Seabrook, and Keith should give the Hawks a great chance to score when they have the advantage. The three forwards on that top line combined to score 22 power-play goals, with Panarin leading the way with 9.
While the Blackhawks have historically held an advantage over the Predators, this series will be no cakewalk. The Hawks will be challenged by the Predators from the get-go and can expect to be met with a raucous environment when they enter ‘Smashville.’ This should be one of the most entertaining series of the first round.