Here we go, boys and girls! The Chicago Blackhawks split their last two tilts against the Detroit Red Wings, while the Nashville Predators lost their last two contests versus the Carolina Hurricanes. This leaves the Blackhawks just two points back in the standings, with 47 points to the Predators’ 49. That final playoff spot in the Discover Central Division is up for grabs. And to add to the intrigue, the Hawks and Preds head into a crucial three-game series against each other this coming Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
With that in mind, I hooked up with my colleague Wray Perkin who covers the Predators here at The Hockey Writer’s, to get some perspective from the enemy. We sat down for a friendly Q and A session to learn a little more about Nashville and what they will bring to these upcoming matchups. Here’s our conversation below, as well as our predictions for the series.
Nashville’s Successful Run
Question: After going 11-16-1 at the beginning of the season, the Predators have impressively won 13 of their last 18 games. That’s quite the turnaround. To what do you attribute this recent successful run?
Wray: I don’t think this run can be attributed to one single player. The depth of the Predators, the young depth in particular, has really stepped up to produce in big ways. Forward Eeli Tolvanen was on a big tear before his injury, and on the blue line Alex Carrier and Dante Fabbro were becoming difference makers prior to their injuries. The Predators’ special teams has gone from an embarrassment to a factor.
Yes, their penalty kill is still struggling against the top power plays, but it’s looking better against the average power plays, something that couldn’t be said earlier this season. The power play has steadily been improving, in part because of Tolvanen’s impact from the left wing, and defensemen Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis being back in the lineup has only helped that.
All around, Josi’s return, despite occurring after the run of success started, has seemed to bolster the lineup from top to bottom. I’ve also been really impressed with the play of the fourth line, anchored by Yakov Trenin and Colton Sissons.
Q: 25-year-old Juuse Saros appears to have established himself as the No. 1 goaltender this season, especially since returning from injury in mid-March. Yet most Blackhawks’ fans still cringe when they hear the name Pekka Rinne, the Preds veteran netminder who’s seen his fair share of success against Chicago. How would you describe the dynamic in Nashville with these two goaltenders?
Wray: The Saros-Rinne dynamic is a really fascinating one. Over the last couple of seasons they have almost mirrored each other in the sense that when one struggles, so does the other. Rinne turned his season around in March with some really impressive performances, and since Saros came back he’s been among the best goalies in the league.
There are many, many Predators’ fans who have a deep love for Rinne, and rightfully so. I think even though the end of his career is imminent, it’s in the Predators’ best interest to sign him again for one more year. Rinne has been an incredible mentor for Saros throughout his career, and it gives some of the goaltending depth in the Predators’ prospect system another year to develop before arriving in the NHL full-time.
Saros has been inconsistent so far in his career, routinely starting seasons slowly before finding his groove in the second half. At this point, both Rinne and Saros have been playing exceptionally well to the point where Predators fans feel excited about the goaltending regardless of who is getting the start on any given night.
Predators Players to Watch
Q: I took a look at the Predators stat lines, and nobody really stands out above the crowd in goals, assists and points. It seems to be a pretty balanced effort. As an expert on the team, name three players the Blackhawks should be watching out for in this upcoming series.
Wray: I’ll go with one “duh, we know” player, one “I guess he’s a factor” player, and one “lol really?” player for the three to watch.
Roman Josi (Duh, We Know)
Josi has been absolutely electric since returning from injury, to the point where I truly believe if he had been playing at this level all season he would be a shoo-in to repeat as the Norris Trophy winner. His assist on Viktor Arvidsson’s goal against Tampa the other night was like listening to the Beatles for the first time.
Mikael Granlund (I Guess He’s a Factor)
Granlund has pretty much literally been a Swiss Army Knife this season, being an incredible force at even strength, on the power play, and shorthanded. He’s not a big body but definitely plays bigger than he is, with solid speed and a scoring touch that I wish we saw more of.
The center’s name was bandied about even up to the day of the trade deadline as someone who could provide depth and a multi-purpose role to a contender. Selfishly, I’m glad that Nashville kept him, because I don’t think his Predators’ story is done being written yet.
Tanner Jeannot (Lol, Really?)
Jeannot has been a wildly fun player to watch lately. With only a handful of NHL games under his belt, he has literally been a one-man wrecking crew, with some GIF-able hits both along both along the boards and in the open ice. Despite only averaging around ten minutes a game, and being a depth player on the fourth line, he has nonetheless very quickly become a fan favorite in “Smashville,” delivering on the city’s nickname in a big, physical way.
Wray: I feel the need to add, unprompted, that Kirby Dach terrifies the living daylights out of me. That guy is a machine. And as good as Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat have been all year, I think Dach will be a big difference-maker in this pivotal series.
Gail: I’m glad you brought up the Blackhawks’ 2019 NHL Draft third overall pick. Dach wasn’t even supposed to play this season after fracturing his right wrist while playing in the IIHF World Junior Championship for Team Canada. But he worked hard, making a three-month return instead of the predicted four-five month recovery. As a matter of fact, his first two games back were against the Predators on Mar. 27 and Mar. 28.
Unfortunately, the 20-year-old has had a tough time getting up to speed since his return. While playing won’t hinder his long-term health, Dach has confessed to still dealing with pain in his wrist, and having to pay special attention to his game preparation and recovery.
But one certainly sees his potential, and Dach has already made a difference with one goal and four assists in his 11 games played. Let’s hope he can get over the hump with some further production and contributions against the Preds.
Blackhawks/Predators Series Predictions
Q: All right, let’s get down to the nitty gritty. What is your prediction for the outcome of this final three-game Blackhawks/Predators series?
Wray: This is going to seem like a cop-out, but I swear it isn’t. I’m not a prediction maker when it comes to game results. That being said, I don’t see a sweep happening in this three-game series. I know Nashville has yet to lose against Chicago this season, but a season sweep seems unlikely to me. I think Nashville probably takes two out of three at best, but don’t be surprised to see an overtime game earning a point for the upstart Blackhawks.
Gail: The Predators are one of the Blackhawks’ toughest opponents, and also the only team in the Discover Central Division they haven’t beaten yet this season. Nashville’s defensive style of play and ability to clog up open lanes is difficult for the more offensively-minded Blackhawks.
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But! They’ve had six contests now to figure out how to win. There’s only one way around the Predators, and that’s straight through them. I’m looking forward to three tough, physical matchups. And the Blackhawks need to come away with AT LEAST four points out of the six available in this series. Anything less just won’t cut it.
Thank you Wray, my friend, for giving us this valuable insight into your team ahead of this crucial three-game series between the Blackhawks and the Predators. It’s always great to get a deeper perspective on your opponent.
With that said, as soon as that puck drops we shall be friends no more! Here’s to a great series!
Avid Chicago Blackhawks fan and follower! Would much rather be reading and writing about hockey than cooking and cleaning. Otherwise known as The Hockey Housewife.