Blackhawks Rivalry: Scouting the Predators

This Saturday marks the final game of a busy week for the Chicago Blackhawks. They made a trip to Canada for back-to-back tilts earlier in the week against Toronto and Montreal, securing three of four possible points in the standings. This past Thursday, they suffered a controversial loss at the hands of their division foe, the Minnesota Wild.

But I’ll bet the Hawks have had this next tilt circled on their calendars for quite some time.

You see, this weekend marks the first time the Hawks play the Nashville Predators since the Preds swept them from the first round of the playoffs. In four short games, the Preds embarrassed the Hawks, dominating them with their speed and ability. It’s still early in the season, and these two division foes will meet three more times after Saturday. But I’m sure the Hawks look to this game as a chance for redemption after their lackluster performance last April.

The Chicago Blackhawks were embarrassed after being swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Nashville Predators last season. (Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports)

In preparation for this momentous occasion, we hooked up with THW’s Benjamin Nixon for a friendly Q & A about the Predators and this game. Let’s take a look.

Gail Kauchak: The Preds have broken even in their first four games of the season, losing their first two, and then winning their second two. How do you feel about their start so far?

Benjamin Nixon:

The start to the season was not a good look for the Predators, as they might have been dragging a bit after the disappointing finish in the Stanley Cup Final. In the first two games, the Predators’ chemistry just wasn’t there yet, but when they returned home things changed drastically. This seems to be the tale of the Predators, who experience two sides of the coin frequently.

All in all, I’m satisfied with the start to the season. Had things continued to go south and the Predators stood with an 0-4 record, that response would certainly be a different one. Regardless, there have been some high notes to marvel at and some low notes that need some fixing. But hey, there are still 78 games left, right?

GK: Since last season, the Preds lost James Neal to the Vegas Golden Knights, Colin Wilson to the Colorado Avalanche, and Mike Fisher to retirement. Without these three forwards, who do you see stepping up on offense?

BN: There’s no question the loss of those guys creates some offensive holes for the Predators. Fans in Nashville have been paying close attention to Neal in Las Vegas and wondering what could have been, as he’s having a great start to the season. The Predators will need to lean on Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson to continue the success they had from last season.

Marc-Andre Fleury James Neal Golden Knights
Ex-Predator James Neal is finding early success with his new team, the Vegas Golden Knights. (Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)

In addition to the established scorers, Kevin Fiala seems to be on the rise and could provide the Predators with some offensive spark as the season goes on. He was impressive in the playoffs last year and showed a lot of promise before his season-ending injury. Another name to throw in the ring is Craig Smith. For whatever reason, he seemed snake-bitten and couldn’t find the net last season, but I think he turns a corner this year.

GK: Moving on to defense, it looks like the team will be without Ryan Ellis for an extended period of time due to injury. How will this affect the team?

BN: The news that Ellis would miss close to half the season was painful. Upon hearing this in the offseason, it made fans feel quite uneasy. It’s clear Ellis is a leader on the blue line. One thing Nashville will miss is his “do anything at all costs” attitude to keep the puck from getting behind Pekka Rinne.

The loss of Ryan Ellis will leave a huge hole on the blue line for the Predators this season. (Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)

The Predators tried to bulk up the defense with the acquisition of Alexei Emelin, but there is only so much you can do to replace a player like Ellis. With Roman Josi battling injury early on, rookie Sam Girard is getting some playing time and has been really impressive so far. With the emergence of Girard and solid leaders like Mattias Ekholm and P.K. Subban still present, the Predators should be able to weather the storm until Ellis can return.

Related: Predators Eeli Tolvanen Is on Fire

GK: Speaking of defense, it’s been one full season since the exchange of Shea Weber to the Montreal Canadiens for Subban. Now that the dust has settled, what are your current thoughts on this blockbuster trade?

BN: When the news broke last summer that Weber was leaving Nashville, the shock waves were felt throughout Nashville – and Montreal for that matter. Weber was the face of the Predators and provided a strong sense of leadership. Losing that seemed unfathomable. In the end, though, the trade considerably benefited Nashville.

P.K. Subban has found his way with the Nashville Predators. (Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)

Mobile defensemen are becoming increasingly prevalent, and the stay-at-home big hitters are starting to disappear. While both players had a largely comparable 2016-17 season, Subban fit into the Predators’ style of play perfectly. Fans in Nashville were sad to see Weber go, but the city has embraced Subban in the best way possible. Ultimately, this trade was a win-win for both parties.

GK: What’s your stance on the “keep the red out” campaign that’s enforced at Bridgestone Arena, which essentially allows only credit card holders from the Predators’ TV viewing area to purchase tickets?

BN: A lot of noise has been made about the Predators, but they aren’t the only ones that have implemented such policies. Both the St. Louis Blues and Tampa Bay Lightning have used ticketing policies to limit the impact of opposing fans at their home games. The Lightning even went so far as prevent opposing fans from wearing their team colors in certain areas of the arena. Rejoice in the fact that Blackhawks fans can still wear their red and white sweaters in Nashville – if they are lucky enough to make it in, that is.

I get why this ticketing policy has been put in place – the Predators want to create the best home-ice advantage possible. That becomes difficult when the ratio of fans shifts in favor of the opposing team. I don’t entirely agree with the policy, as restricting fans from watching hockey just feels off. But it is what it is, and there are certainly workarounds, as the Blackhawks fans have proven. While there is still a lot of red in the seats of Bridgestone, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the slight decrease in red.

GK: Do you think goaltender Pekka Rinne still has what it takes to lead the Preds to another playoff run?

BN: I do. He’s getting up there in age, but his competitive edge is still as sharp as ever. A deep playoff run should do nothing but rejuvenate his soul if it’s starting to feel old. Rinne has been the cornerstone of the Predators since his arrival, and their success largely depends on how consistent he is between the pipes.

Does Pekka Rinne still have what it takes to lead the Predators back to the playoffs? (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

What will ultimately benefit Rinne and the Predators will be the usage of backup Juuse Saros to provide some rest and recovery. The 2017 playoffs saw Rinne have a phenomenal first round, a great second round, an okay third round, and an abysmal fourth round in which his heavy workload finally caught up to him. Staying fresh and on his game will result in another deep playoff run, hopefully with a different outcome.

GK: Where do you see the Predators ending up in the division standings? Last year they snuck into the playoffs and turned it on at the right time. Will they make a strong showing this year or go through a bit of a sophomore slump?

BN: With the national attention Nashville had in the playoffs last year, more and more eyes will be on the team, watching how they perform in the 2017-18 season. I think the Predators will have a solid year. Recent trends suggest they will suffer a mid-season slide, but I remain hopeful they will avoid that, and I see them towards the top of the division. I’m not confident enough to call them Central Division champions, but I suspect it won’t be as dramatic as sneaking in at the last second as an eighth seed.

GK: Finally, what’s your prediction for tonight’s game?

BN: My heart tells me the Predators win, but my head tells me the Blackhawks win. After the drudging Nashville gave Chicago in last year’s playoffs, I have no doubt the Blackhawks will be out looking for some serious revenge. Nashville is gaining some steam after winning two games in a row at home, but Chicago winning three out of five is a strong statement as well. If this game was being played at Bridgestone, I’d give the edge to the Predators. However, since the puck hits the ice at the United Center, the nod goes to the Blackhawks.

Thank you to Benjamin Nixon for his insight on the Predators, and this upcoming contest against the Blackhawks! I, for one, hope his prediction is right, and the Hawks come out victorious on Saturday night. It should be a great game, with lots of fireworks between these two division rivals.

Get your popcorn ready!