No one saw this coming. The eight-seeded, second wild card Nashville Predators rampaged through the United Center and emerged with two shutout victories at the expense of the Chicago Blackhawks. As the series shifts to Bridgestone Arena in Nashville – and as the crackle of burning playoff brackets drowns out the sobs of Blackhawks fans, let’s take a look at how we got here – and where we’re going.
The Predators came out flying, taking advantage of a sluggish Blackhawks team who had been off for four days. Viktor Arvidsson continued his sterling play, potting the first goal in the series to send Nashville into the intermission with the lead. The Blackhawks soon began to live up to their championship pedigree though, outshooting the Predators 23-9 over the final two periods. However, Rinne stood tall and Nashville’s defense showed gradual improvement in parrying the Hawks’ thrusts – not to mention blocking 26 attempts on net, resulting in a 1-0 victory for the visitors.
The second game started off at a breakneck pace, with a Viktor Arvidsson breakaway and a Richard Panik goalpost within the first minute. The Blackhawks had two other point-blank opportunities off the rush, but Rinne was calm and in control, turning them both away. Soon afterwards, Ryan Ellis blasted a shot home from the point to give the Preds a 1-0 lead.
Nashville responded to Chicago’s pushback with a collapsing style in the defensive zone, resulting in a lot of Blackhawks shots being blocked, and others simply having no lane to get through. That said, the Hawks showed flashes of offense from their rush game, including another goalpost, this one courtesy Jonathan Toews.
The Predators slowly began to take over the game however, converting on four rush chances of their own to build a 5-0 lead. In between, the Predators’ defensive game frustrated the Blackhawks, with Rinne neatly cleaning up any messes left over. Though not an altogether dominating performance, the Predators certainly left their mark on the Blackhawks – and the vaunted United Center – with a decisive game two victory.
Not Over Yet
But let’s not count the Blackhawks out just yet; three Cups in seven years is no mean feat. Chicago has the both the talent and experience to come back in this series; would anyone be surprised if they won four straight?
The Predators’ collapsing style of play in their defensive zone has worked so far in the series, but playing such a style does carry risks. The first is pretty basic: blocking shots leave players open to injury. Yes, hockey is already an inherently dangerous sport and yes, shots that don’t get through to the net don’t go in, but too much emphasis on shot-blocking just seems like a great way to get someone hurt.
Which leads me to the second risk of a collapsing style: the fact that, by collapsing, a team is essentially giving up the opportunity to head off an attack at the source, choosing instead to deflect or absorb the blows and then compete in a puck battle to try and regain possession. The Predators have been doing a good job disrupting Chicago’s flow in the neutral zone, but might have to become similarly aggressive in the defensive zone, should the Blackhawks adjust to counter the Predators’ phalanx.
Is This the Year?
Two years ago, it was the Predators who gave the Blackhawks perhaps their toughest test on the road to the Stanley Cup. They exposed Chicago’s defense and chased Corey Crawford from the series. Had one or two of the series’ multi-overtime games bounced a different way in extra time – and or if the Preds didn’t blow a 3-0 lead in game one, hockey history might be significantly different.
Combine the Preds’ proof of concept dealing with the Blackhawks with the fact that Chicago will have to win at least two games in Bridgestone Arena, where the Predators are 81-32-19 since 2014-15, and this might well be the year the Predators slay the dragon that has tormented the Western Conference, lo these many years.
What to Expect
From the Blackhawks, I would expect to see more urgency in their game. They really let the Predators take over in game two, which is unbecoming of a team of their calibre. I would also expect to see them attempt to break down the collapsing strategy of the Predators by being smarter and more patient with the puck. For instance, I saw Niklas Hjalmarsson, rather than firing the puck into a Predator’s shin pads, direct his point shot wide of the net to create a favourable bounce off the boards.
Furthermore, it would not surprise me to see more aggression from the Hawks’ defense with regards to stepping up in the play. Most of Chicago’s good chances have been generated off the rush, as the Predators, once all hands get back in the zone, have locked things down pretty quick. Additionally, an extra option or two on the rush should help the Blackhawks overcome the neutral zone disruption employed by their opponents.
From Nashville, I expect more of the same; a hard, fast, straight-line game that makes the most of the Preds’ ample speed and that helps to compensate for deficiencies in forward talent. The Predators got some secondary scoring in game two to take the pressure off the Filip Forsberg-Ryan Johansen-Viktor Arvidsson line. Should that continue, Nashville is in pretty good shape offensively.
As mentioned, Nashville might run into problems with the way they play in the defensive zone, but until their cloister can be penetrated, I’m not sure there is much impetus to change. Not to be discounted, their interception in the neutral zone of Chicago attacks has no doubt also contributed to the two shutouts to start the series, as the Blackhawks forwards have had neither time nor space to mount a consistent attack. As for goaltending, Pekka Rinne has been cool, calm, collected and in control, and luck has begun to follow (see: goalposts).
Nashville is headed home, where they have, historically, been significantly better than on the road. Advice for the Preds? Keep doing what you’re doing.
Two Down, How Many to Go?
Before we get too ahead of ourselves, let’s all remember that this is the National Hockey League we’re talking about here. The series lasts seven games; there is still plenty of time for the Blackhawks to turn it around. But let’s also not take away from the fact that Nashville got literally the best possible result from the first two games of the series: two road shutouts that were, by and large, well-deserved.
That said, none of this matters when the puck drops for game three.
Peter Ferrell covers the Florida Panthers and Toronto Maple Leafs, with a side of jersey and logo (over)analysis, for The Hockey Writers.