We are approaching the most stressful time of the NHL season: the final countdown to the playoffs. Some teams have already punched their tickets to the postseason, including the Toronto Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes. Others will be battling to the last second to earn their spot.
The Nashville Predators had a pretty rough beginning to the season, and until recently, a playoff appearance seemed unobtainable. Nashville’s record since the beginning of April is 5-4-0, including an impressive 7-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning. Their next three games will be against the Chicago Blackhawks, and these meetings could determine which team secures the fourth spot in the Central Division.
A Critical 3-Game Series
Going into the first game of the week, the Predators have 49 points and are in the final playoff spot. The Blackhawks are right on their tail in fifth with 47 points. Their record for the month is similar to the Predators at 4-4-0. The first matchup of the series will be played at Bridgestone Arena. The last time Chicago won a game in Nashville was November 16, 2019.
Chicago is coming off of a victory over the Detroit Red Wings when Malcolm Subban made 29 saves to solidify his second shutout of the season on Saturday. The team has momentum coming into this week, and they understand how critical the next three games will be.
“I think obviously everyone knows where we are at in the standings,” said Blackhawks forward Vinnie Hinostroza after the victory against Detroit. “To win this game how we did, 4-nothing, battled the whole game, it’s great going into this three-game series we have with Nashville. These will be the biggest three games of the year. I know this group is excited. It’s huge we got the momentum going into it” (from ‘4 takeaways from the Chicago Blackhawks’ 4-0 win over the Detroit Red Wings, including the case for starting Malcolm Subban more and how Vinnie Hinostroza’s wakeup call is paying off,’ Chicago Tribune, 04/18/2021).
On the other hand, the Predators are coming off two losses to a very impressive Hurricanes team. The bright side is captain Roman Josi is at the top of his game and has 20 points in his past 22 games. Besides the losses, Nashville is on an impressive run. It is hard to believe their record a month ago was 11-16-1, and they were 10 points out of a playoff spot. Even with constant injuries, they’ve found a way to climb the standings.
“They’re huge games, and we all know that,” Josi said after the loss to the Hurricanes. “Every game is huge. Tonight was a huge game, and I thought we kind of got away from our identity a little bit tonight in the first. We’ve got to get back to playing to our identity for 60 minutes, and it’s going to be really important against Chicago.”
History Favors Hynes’ Team
The Blackhawks and Predators have already met five times in this shortened season. In late January, Chicago traveled to Nashville to play back-to-back games. The Predators walked away with both victories, although the Blackhawks earned a point in each outing. However, it did not get much better for Chicago when they met two months later.
At the end of March, the teams faced off in the Windy City for back-to-back games. The Predators scored six goals in the two-game span and returned home with four very important points. Juuse Saros was in net for the first victory while Pekka Rinne led his team in the second game. Rinne performs very well against the Blackhawks with 26 regular-season victories, more than any other team.
Their most recent matchup was on April 3, 2021, when the Predators again earned two points and Saros recorded his 13th career shutout after stopping 41 shots. Nashville scored a goal in each period, including a power-play and a short-handed goal.
In five games against Chicago, 11 Predators have scored a goal. Nashville has been plagued by injuries, and their roster has been a revolving door of young players. However, their play has been impressive. They killed 16 penalties against Chicago, and the Blackhawks only managed one power-play goal. Not bad for a Nashville penalty kill that ranks 28th in the league.
An Opportune Moment
There is no reason why the Predators can’t end this week with four more points. My colleague, Gail Kauchak, explained what the Blackhawks must do if they want to make the playoffs, and at the top of her list is beating the Predators. Head coach John Hynes’ team performs well against Chicago, who can’t seem to keep up with Nashville’s style of play.
Over the next three games, the Predators must play to their strengths, and their star players will need to shine. Their path to the playoffs will not be easy, but it can be done starting with wins in at least two if not all three games against Chicago. To quote the great Herb Brooks, “This is your time. Now go out there and take it!”
Kristy has been contributing to The Hockey Writers since March of 2021. She is thrilled to be putting her journalism degree to use and is a credentialed correspondent covering the New Jersey Devils. Kristy is also a member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. You can follow her journey on Twitter @InStilettos_NHL and Instagram SkatingInStilettos.