Please enjoy this guest post from Austin Gwin. Austin is an ESPN3 Producer with the Lipscomb University Athletic Department.
The Nashville Predators and Chicago Blackhawks start their round one series Wednesday in a Stanley Cup Playoff matchup that is sure to draw some eyeballs, not only locally, but also nationwide. The Preds, led by defensive rocks Shea Weber and Roman Josi, will look to keep in check the mighty Blackhawk offense led by Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa. With Chicago’s superstar right winger Patrick Kane working hard to recover from injury in time to play a part in the series, Nashville is trying to get back to their winning ways. The season series finished in favor of the Blackhawks with three wins to one for the Predators, but three of the four games were decided by one goal. The two teams haven’t met since Dec. 29th, and both limp into the playoffs with Chicago riding a four-game losing streak and Nashville, its last six. Nashville fans love to hate the Blackhawks, so here are 5 keys to the men in gold winning in round one.
1. A first-half of the season Pekka Rinne
Writers and reporters throughout the last few weeks have beaten it to death, but it stands alone as the number one key to this series for the Nashville Predators. When Pekka Rinne started in goal on January 13th against the Vancouver Canucks, he was the leading candidate for both the Vezina (best goaltender) and Hart (most valuable player) Trophies. He was 28-6-2 and the Predators were coasting to the Central Division title. Early in the third period of a 2-1 game the Vancouver Canucks’ Chris Higgins collided into Rinne leaving him with a sprained knee, and injury that ultimately lead to a 23-day absence. While backup net-minder Carton Hutton filled in admirably, Rinne hasn’t been the same. Yes, he has had his moments (notably the triple save against the San Jose Sharks on February 17th that was SportsCenter’s #1 play), but his record “post-injury” shows the inconsistency: 12-11-4. If the Predators are to win this series, they will need a top-form Pekka Rinne.
2. Contributions from the newcomers
Most Predators fans were jazzed to hear that hometown kids Cody Franson and Mike Santorelli were coming back to Smashville when the Predators traded for them two weeks before the NHL trade deadline. It seemed like Nashville had shored up any weaknesses that were present at minimal cost. I thought it was a home run trade. Fast-forward 2 months and this trade hasn’t been anything like what Predators GM David Poile has envisioned, I’m sure. Santorelli, a winger, has been invisible bouncing back and forth between lines as head coach Peter Laviolette tries to find where he fits. He has four points in 22 games and has been a non-factor at best for Nashville. Franson, a D-man, just wishes he could be labeled a non- factor as he has most often been an asset for opposing teams. Turnovers, mental lapses, and poor play have led to Franson being benched for entire periods as of late. Both of these newcomers will need to make their presence felt (in a positive way for the Predators) in this series.
3. Take advantage of home ice
At one point the Preds home record this year was 26-3-1. That’s a ridiculous winning percentage of .867 on home ice. They finished the year going 2-6-3 in their final 11 home games. The fans filled Bridgestone Arena and were loud, but the Predators just couldn’t seem to find victories in their own barn. Opposing coaches and players routinely say how hard it is to play in Nashville. Some have called it the hardest place to play in the NHL. Nashville must use the noise and energy of playing at home to their advantage in this series. This becomes even more crucial when you play the Blackhawks. Hawks’ fans have flooded lower Broadway whenever Chicago comes to town. Their fans travel well, and it has sometimes sounded like a home game for Chicago when they score at Bridgestone. Upper management for that Predators has done their best to sell playoff tickets to only local fans in hopes of limiting black and red from entering Smashville. We’ll see if that works, but regardless the Predators must use the home ice. Remember, if the series goes to seven games, the deciding contest will be played in Nashville.
4. Limit the damage done by the Hawks’ stars
If only it were as simple as me writing that sentence. The Hawks boast plenty of firepower on offense. Household names like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, and Patrick Sharp make this team deadly. While their power play isn’t as potent as it has been in years past, they are the 4th-best 5-on-5 team in hockey, scoring 1.19 even-strength goals for each one they give up. Only the New York Rangers, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Predators have better ratios. And if past Stanley Cup Playoffs have taught us anything, it’s that the Hawks’ stars shine brightest in the playoffs. Both Toews and Kane have Conn Smythe Trophies (Stanley Cup Finals MVP) to their name in the last 5 years. (Side note: Kane is still recovering from a broken collarbone, but reports are coming out that he has been cleared for full contact practice. I would be really surprised if he wasn’t ready for Wednesday night.) The Predators won’t be able to totally shut down the Hawks stars, (we all know how big of a Preds-killer Marian Hossa is), but they will need to minimize their impact. Needless to say, Weber, Josi, and Co. will have their hands full.
*Update: Blackhawks now report that Patrick Kane has now been fully cleared to return to the lineup.
5. Don’t let the moment get too big
Both the Preds and the Hawks have very good offenses, defensive stars, and good goaltenders. They both have top-tier coaches. They have great home arenas that fill with crazed fans. However there is a glaring difference in these teams: Playoff experience. The Hawks have been there and done that. They have won two Cups in the last 5 years, including on in 2013. The Stanley Cup playoffs are a whole different animal than the regular season and the Hawks are seasoned. The Predators? Not so much. Sure, a handful of Smashville’s finest have seen the conference semifinals. Rinne, Weber, Josi, Mike Fisher, and a few others were a part of that team three years ago. However, a lot of the young talent the Preds boast has never been to the playoffs. Rookie sensation Filip Forsberg, sophomore defenseman Seth Jones, and third-line center Calle Jarnkrok will experience playoff hockey for the first time Wednesday. More importantly, this group of guys hasn’t gone through it as a team. There has been a huge roster turnover from the last playoff run in 2011-12, not to mention a new head coach and drastically different style of play. The team can’t let the enormity of the scene get the best of them, or it’ll be a quick series in the Blackhawks favor.
This series is not short on drama, and chances are it will live up to the billing of being one of the better first round series in the chase for Lord Stanley’s Cup. Here’s to the boys in gold getting it done against their nemesis.
Austin Gwin is an ESPN3 producer and videographer for the Lipscomb University Athletic Department. A local Nashvillian, he has been a Preds fan through the good, the bad, and the Radulov era. He knows the Cellblock 303 cheers and often indulges in a hot chicken sandwich at Bridgestone Arena. Feel free to tweet constructive compliments @Austin_Gwin.
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