Three Keys to the Nashville Predators-Chicago Blackhawks Series


The Nashville Predators and the Chicago Blackhawks drop the puck tomorrow night in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Even though the two teams combined for 206 points in the regular season, they’re riding a combined 10 game losing streak into the playoffs. The Predators have lost six in a row and the Blackhawks four. Backing into the playoffs is never good, but considering that both teams are playing pretty poorly at the moment, I’d say it’s a wash.

If the Nashville Predators hope to win their first round series, they’re going to have to play better than they have for the last month, they’re also probably going to need to steal a game or two in which they get out-played. I don’t think Chicago is a better team, but with the way the Predators have played lately, I’m not entirely certain that they would win a seven game series against the Charlestown Chiefs.

Today we’re going to examine three things that could turn the tide of the series for Nashville. These aren’t the only things that matter in hockey, but in this series, look for these keys to be crucial to the Predators’ success or lack thereof.

Special Teams

When I was in high school, I had a very wise football coach. He had a great deal of wisdom to impart unto me, and a lot of his advice sticks with me to this day. I remember one time when I had a few bad practices in a row he told me, “Robert, you need to suck less”. Those words just resounded with me and I remember them even now, 13 years later. That’s the kind of advice the Predators need to take to heart in regards to their special teams play.

“Suck less”

The Predators power play is scoring at a resounding 16.2% rate. That was good for 25th in the league. Luckily, Chicago only clicked at a 17.6% clip, 20th in the league, so there’s not that much separation there.

There is a bit more separation when it comes to the penalty kill though. Chicago was 10th in the league on the PK this season, killing off penalties 83.4% of the time. Nashville was again below average in this category, 18th in the league with a 80.8% kill rate.

The bottom line is simple. The Predators’ special teams units have to do a better job on both ends of the ice. It’s possible the Predators can win without a stellar power play, but if the PK isn’t keeping the puck out of the net, this series will absolutely be over quickly.

All of this can also be applied to 5-on-6 play as well. Too many times this season the Predators choked away a one goal lead in the waning seconds when the opposing team pulled their goalie. In a series like this, you can be assured that most of the games will be decided by one goal.

How the Predators Win

The PK stands tall against a below average Chicago power play attack while the Predators’ power play lights the lamp more than once and steals a game in the series. The Predators hold on to win games after Chicago pulls the goalie for the extra attacker.

How the Predators Lose

Both special teams units look confused and befuddled. The PK gives the potent Chicago forwards too much room to maneuver and they snipe Pekka Rinne into oblivion. The PP unit can’t keep the puck in Chicago’s zone long enough to set up an attack and waste two minutes every time they’re out there.

Secondary Scoring

The Predators have scored 226 goals this season. 126 goals have come from their top two lines of ForsbergRibeiroNeal and WilsonFisherSmith. That accounts for 56% of the total goals scored, which is pretty close to what the Blackhawks do. Their top-six have scored 128 of 220 goals, for about 58% of the team’s total. The glaring difference in the two teams is that while the Blackhawks defensemen have scored a measly 27 goals between them (12% of team total), the Predators’ defensemen have 54 (27%). Shea Weber and Roman Josi have more goals than the Blackhawks defensemen on their own. They have 30 goals between them.

The fact of the matter is that Nashville’s defensemen are asked to do a lot. Not only do they have to stop the other team from scoring, but they’ve also been tasked with scoring about a quarter of the goals this season. In a seven game series against a team as good as the Blackhawks, that might just be asking too much. With players like Marian Hossa, Jonathan Toews, and Patrick Kane, the Predators’ defensive corps will have their hands full.

How the Predators Win

The 3rd and 4th lines step up and score a couple of goals in order to take the pressure off of the defense. Guys like Mike Santorelli, Calle Jarnkrok, and even Kevin Fiala score a few timely goals if he does indeed play. This eases the pressure to score off of Nashville’s defensemen and they are better able to contain Chicago’s potent attack.

How the Predators Lose

The top lines get stifled by Chicago. The call-up of Fiala does nothing to help a bottom-six crew that has only contributed 20% of the Predators’ goals this season (even though we don’t know if he’ll play). The defensive corps gives up odd man rushes trying to attack in the Chicago zone to compensate for the lack of scoring.

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It’s no secret that Rinne has been anything less than stellar these last few weeks. In his last five games, Rinne went 1-2-2 with a .865 save percentage. Those are bottom level AHLer numbers. He looked like Superman between the pipes for the first half of the year. Some idiot (me) even posited that he could make a run at Martin Brodeur’s single season wins record. Obviously that didn’t happen. Rinne still compiled 41 wins, no small feat by any measure. Everyone knows that he has the ability to completely change the course of a game when he is in top form. He’s going to have to get back to that early season form in a hurry, otherwise he’s going to be dusting off his golf clubs before May.

Corey Crawford has been impressive this season. He went 32-20-5 with a .924 save percentage. However, his career against the Predators is interesting. He is 9-7-1, but has a dismal .894 career SV% against Nashville. That ranks 4th lowest among all other teams against him in the NHL. The Predators have to throw quality shots at the net in order to beat Crawford and make him work for every save. Crawford also finished his last seven games with a .892 SV%, so he’s not exactly playing up to form right now, either.

Goaltending can turn a series. All of the advanced statistics, game planning, and great shooting in the world don’t mean squat if you’re going up against a hot goalie who can stand on his head and steal wins. All the predictions and expert analysis is useless if a goalie is turning the game around on his own.

How the Predators Win

Rinne flips a switch and plays spectacularly. He doesn’t give up the easy goals he’s been letting through lately and robs some of Chicago’s playmakers when the defense breaks down in front of him. The Predators win a game or two that maybe they shouldn’t because of him. Meanwhile Crawford looks average against a Nashville attack that has his number.

How the Predators Lose

Rinne plays like he has been the last couple of weeks, giving up three to four goals per game and allows goals on pucks that even average goalies should stop. The Predators can’t take advantage of Crawford and he stonewalls a Predators attack that can’t get any sustained pressure outside of the top line.

The Predators can definitely win this series, but they’re going to have to shore up some of the deficiencies that have been plaguing them as of late.