After a long, grueling, up-and-down, wacky and memorable 82-game regular season, it’s time for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. For the third time in as many seasons, and for the 10th time in the last 13 seasons, the Nashville Predators will be playing for the Stanley Cup.
This time around, the Predators will be taking on the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round. It will be a tough test for Nashville against such a perennial Cup contender like Chicago, but anything can happen once the puck drops in the postseason.
Here is everything you need to know about this first round showdown:
Game One: Thursday, April 13, 7 P.M. CT: Predators @ Blackhawks, NBCSN/Sportsnet/TVA Sports
Game Two: Saturday, April 15, 7 P.M. CT: Predators @ Blackhawks, NBC/Sportsnet/TVA Sports
Game Three: Monday, April 17, 8:30 P.M. CT: Blackhawks @ Predators, CNBC/SN ONE/TVA Sports
Game Four: Thursday, April 20, TBD: Blackhawks @ Predators TBD/SN 360/TVA Sports
Game Five*: Saturday, April 22, TBD: Predators @ Blackhawks, TBD
Game Six*: Monday, April 24, TBD: Blackhawks @ Predators. TBD
Game Seven*: Wednesday, April 26, TBD: Predators @ Blackhawks, TBD
Nashville Predators: 41-29-12, 94 points, finished as second wild card team in the Western Conference
Chicago Blackhawks: 50-23-9, 109 points, finished in first place in the Central Division and own the best record in the Western Conference
Predators All-Time Record vs. Blackhawks: 50-63-4
First Meeting: October 24th, 1998, Blackhawks defeated Predators 5-4
Predators All-Time Record vs. Blackhawks at United Center: 21-37-1
Predators All-Time Record vs. Blackhawks at Bridgestone Arena: 29-26-3
2010 Western Conference Quarterfinal, Blackhawks won 4-2
2015 Western Conference Quarterfinal, Blackhawks won 4-2
(Numbers via MCubed.net)
In the first-ever playoff match-up between the two teams, the Predators looked like they were on the verge of earning their first-ever series win. They took Game One in Chicago 4-1 thanks to two third-period goals by J.P. Dumont. It was their first-ever road playoff win. Blackhawks goaltender Antti Niemi pitched a 23-save shutout in Game Two to tie the series.
Nashville took care of business in Game Three with a 4-1 win on the back of David Legwand’s go-ahead goal, before Niemi earned yet another shutout in Game Four to send the series back to Chicago tied at two aside.
Then came that Game Five.
The Blackhawks blew a 3-1 lead well before the Golden State Warriors made it cool. Predators forward Martin Erat put the Predators up 4-3 in the third period with two clutch goals, but the Blackhawks fought their way back. After a nasty Marian Hossa hit earned the forward a five-minute major, the Predators had a power play and the lead in the final minute, and looked poised to put their foot to Chicago’s throat in the series.
Then, well…you know the rest.
Chicago would go on to win the game in overtime, and the series with a win in Game Six. In a way, that Game Five, and the series as a whole, helped launch the Blackhawks dynasty. If the Predators had closed out that game, they more than likely would have closed out the series in Game Six. Who knows what the current Blackhawks would look like if they hadn’t won that Stanley Cup championship back in 2010?
2015 Series Recap
This series started out with a bang, as the young Predators squad got out to a 3-0 first period lead in Game One in Nashville.
That’s what Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville made a decision that may have saved the series, and their season: he put Scott Darling in net, replacing Corey Crawford.
Darling was sensational, and helped lead the Blackhawks to a comeback 4-3 double overtime win in Game One. Nashville came back with a vengeance in Game Two, thrashing the Blackhawks 6-2 to even the series.
Despite evening the series, those first two games would prove very costly for Nashville. Alternate captain Mike Fisher left Game One with an injury and would not return. In Game Two, then-captain Shea Weber left with what turned out to be a sublexed knee cap, and would miss the remainder of the series.
A Blackhawks win in Game Three set up a Game Four for the ages. After a 101-minute slugfest, a Brent Seabrook slapshot found its way past Pekka Rinne in the wee hours of the morning to give the Blackhawks a triple overtime victory. It was, at the time, the longest game in Nashville Predators history.
Nashville would not go quietly into the night, however, as a Filip Forsberg hat trick led the Predators to a decisive Game Five win. It wouldn’t be enough to spark a comeback, however, as the Blackhawks took a 4-3 win in Game Six to eliminate the Predators.
Two years later, head coach Peter Laviolette said the biggest difference between that 2015 team and this team is just that: time
“Our guys are a little bit older now, guys like Jarnkrok and Forsberg and Arvidsson have gained a lot of experience, and even our defensive core,” he said on Sunday. “It seems like they are such staples for us, guys like Ekholm and Ellis. They’re more experienced now. They’re probably better prepared for this, they’re a little bit older, they’re a little bit stronger, a little bit wiser. I think we’re in a good spot.”
Meetings This Season
Predators record vs. Blackhawks this season: 1-4-0
First Meeting: October 14, 2016, Bridgestone Arena
Predators 3 Blackhawks 2
On opening night, the new-look Predators wanted to put on a show, and they sure did deliver. People flocked into Bridgestone Arena to see Nashville’s newly-acquired defenseman P.K. Subban. He opened the scoring for Nashville on the power play to tie the game at one aside in the first period.
With the score tied 2-2 after 2 periods, Mike Fisher added the game-winner late in the third period to give the Predators an opening night victory.
Second Meeting: October 15, 2016, United Center
Predators 3 Blackhawks 5
Around 24 hours after they first squared off to start the season, the Predators and Blackhawks faced each other once again in Chicago. The Predators dug themselves in a hole early, allowing three goals in the first 10 minutes of the first period.
Colin Wilson and Craig Smith got the Predators within one before Richard Panik netted one on the power play to essentially put the game out of reach.
Third Meeting: December 29, 2016, Bridgestone Arena
Predators 2 Blackhawks 3
In a hard-fought, intense midseason game, the Predators clawed their way to a 2-1 lead early in the third period thanks to a Filip Forsberg power play goal.
That was when things started to unravel for Nashville.
Jonathan Toews knotted the game at two with a power play deflection goal at 11:04 of the third period, and Patrick Kane scored on a scary wrist shot from the right circle to give the Blackhawks the lead for good.
Fourth Meeting: January 8, 2017, United Center
Predators 2 Blackhawks 5
Nashville was hanging tough with the Blackhawks through most of this one, and it looked like they could be able to pull out a victory, especially after Austin Watson tied the game at two aside early in the third period.
Then came the Ryan Hartman show.
The 22-year-old winger scored a natural hat trick in the third period to lift the Blackhawks over the Predators and clinch a season series win over Nashville for the third season in a row.
Fifth Meeting: March 4, 2017, Bridgestone Arena
Predators 3 Blackhawks 5
Once again, this game was neck-and-neck through most of the game, and this one looked destined for overtime or at the very least, a close finish. After going down 3-1 late in the second period, the Predators roared back. Calle Jarnkrok’s goal just 14 second later brought Chicago’s lead down to one, and Viktor Arvidsson tied the game a few minutes into the third period.
The last two minutes were not as kind to Nashville. Brian Campbell scored his fifth goal of the season with just over a minute remaining in regulation to give the Blackhawks the lead, and less than 30 second later, Patrick Kane scored to put the final nail in the coffin for Nashville.
Filip Forsberg-Ryan Johansen-Viktor Arvidsson
Colin Wilson-Mike Fisher-James Neal
Kevin Fiala-Colton Sissons-Craig Smith
P.A. Parenteau-Austin Watson-Pontus Aberg
Extra forwards: Calle Jarnkrok (INJ), Vernon Fiddler, Miikka Salomaki, Cody McLeod, Harry Zolnierczyk
Mattias Ekholm-P.K. Subban
Roman Josi-Ryan Ellis
Anthony Bitetto-Matt Irwin
Extra defensemen: Yannick Weber, Brad Hunt
Injury report: Calle Jarnkrok suffered a lower-body injury and missed practice on Monday, leading the Predators to recall Pontus Aberg in his place. It is unclear how much time he may miss.
Nick Schmaltz-Jonathan Toews-Richard Panik
Artemi Panarin-Artem Anisimov-Patrick Kane
Ryan Hartman-Marcus Kruger-Marian Hossa
John Hayden-Dennis Rasmussen-Tomas Jurco
Extras: Andrew Desjardins (INJ), Tanner Kero, Vinnie Hinostroza, Jordin Tootoo
Duncan Keith-Niklas Hjalmarsson
Johnny Oduya-Brent Seabrook
Brian Campbell-Trevor van Riemsdyk
Extras: Gustav Forsling, Michael Kempny, Michal Rozsival (INJ)
Injury report: Both Desjardins and Rozsival are battling injuries right now, but Anisimov has said he is ready to go for the playoffs.
Key Player for Both Sides
Nashville: Viktor Arvidsson
Aside from the acquisitions of Ryan Johansen and P.K. Subban, Arvidsson is perhaps the most noticeable difference between the 2015 Predators that fell to the Blackhawks in six games and this year’s Predators. He has 31 goals this season, shattering the expectations in his second full season with Nashville. Arvidsson has slid in perfectly with Johansen and Forsberg on the top line, and he will have a crucial role in leading the Predators offense and trying to shut down the Blackhawks’ intimidating top line.
Predators general manager David Poile noted how much of a difference Arvidsson makes on this team.
“He’s had a tremendous season, and he’s a great player,” Poile said on Sunday. “He’s done a lot to make our team better. He’s, as we all call him, that Energizer Bunny. He’s such a great role model for everybody in his work ethic. He’s actually made other players better, which is the best thing I could say about somebody. Now, here we go into the playoffs, and you’ve got Forsberg at 30 goals, you’ve got Arvidsson at 30 goals and you’ve got Neal at 20+, who is a 30-goal scorer, but he missed some games. We’ve really got some offense here to match up against Chicago that maybe we didn’t quite have before.”
If the Predators want to advance past the Blackhawks, Arvidsson will have to keep showing why he is one of the best forwards on the team, and perhaps even in the Central Division.
Chicago: Artemi Panarin
As if the Blackhawks could get more talented up front, they’ve managed to add yet another world-class offensive talent to this forward unit. In just two seasons, the player known as the “Bread Man” has 151 points in 162 games, including 61 goals. He has mainly played on a line with Patrick Kane, and the two have been absolutely dynamite together.
With the way Panarin has grown up in this league, people may start talking about a “Big Three” in Chicago with Toews, Kane and Panarin making up the leaders of the best team in hockey in the last 10 years. The Predators have never had to face Panarin in the playoffs, and last season, he was a point-per-game player in the postseason, so Nashville must be on the look out for the youngster when he’s out there with Kane.
Match-ups to Watch
Predators Top Four Defensemen vs. Blackhawks Top Six Forwards
Chicago has the luxury of being able to rely on a top six core of forwards that can beat teams with speed, size and lethal scoring. Kane and Panarin’s line is incredibly fast, and if you give them a single ounce of space, they will pounce and make you pay. Meanwhile, Toews’ line is bigger and more methodical in their attack. They will outwork you in the offensive end and wear you down until you have to let up a goal.
However, the Predators have a perfect counter to that: the best and most talented top four defensemen in the NHL. With the combined speed and agility of Josi and Ellis, the Predators could limit Kane and Panarin’s effectiveness. Plus, with Ekholm and Subban’s ability to use their size and shut down top forwards, Toews may run into some trouble.
The best top six and the best top four in the Central will go head to head, and it’s anyone’s guess as to who will come out on top.
Predators vs. The Blackhawks Brand
The Chicago Blackhawks are the high school jock, bully and school principal all rolled into one. They’re the “big, bad Blackhawks.” The team, along with their roaming legion of fans, can be intimidating.
Three Stanley Cup championships in seven years will certainly do that.
Nashville has yet to beat the Blackhawks in a playoff series, and has not beaten them since opening night on October 14. The Predators have consistently expressed that they are not afraid of the “big, bad Blackhawks” and they don’t feel that intimidation.
“I don’t think that there’s a mental problem in our room with Chicago because at the end of the day, you’ve got to win on the scoreboard, right?” Laviolette said. “We haven’t done that, so that’s what we have to do. If you go and look at the games that we played against them this year, we like the way we played against them. We don’t like the scores all of the time.”
Prior to conference realignment, the Predators’ main rival was the Detroit Red Wings, and it took them three tries to finally win a playoff series against Detroit. Despite that, Poile was quick to distinguish the old Red Wings rivalry and this rivalry with Chicago.
“In the early days, you’d go into Detroit and it was almost like you were nervous to play them,” he said. “Not nervous physically, but just nervous that they had so much talent that we just couldn’t compete with them.”
“But, I don’t feel that way with Chicago. We’ve had lots of good games with them over the years and again, I give them all of the credit in the world. They are the champions, they are the best team, we haven’t beat them, we haven’t won any Cups, but I’m really we have the opportunity to try to beat them this year.”
If the Predators are serious about not being afraid of Chicago, they’ll need to prove it early and often.
Predators vs. the United Center
Nashville went 17-20-4 on the road this season, which wasn’t great, but was not nearly as bad as their record at the United Center. They lost both of their match-ups with the Blackhawks on the road, and have only won one playoff game there: their first-ever playoff game in Chicago in 2010.
The last time this team won at the United Center was on February 25, 2016, a 3-1 victory. Chicago hold the home ice advantage in this series, so the Predators will need to win at least one game at the United Center in order to win the series. If they do not win one of the first two games of the series on the road, they’ll be in deep trouble.
Games Started: 61
Analysis: Rinne played the fewest number of games in a healthy season for him since his second full season in the NHL in ’09-’10. That means he should be well-rested and ready to help the Predators on a deep run. As always, a playoff team can only go as far as their goaltender will take them, so the Predators will need stellar goaltending as a backbone. Expect that to come from Rinne and Rinne alone. Unless he looks completely atrocious, don’t be looking for Juuse Saros to log any playing time. He would only see the ice as a Scott Darling-style replacement, but that would be an extreme circumstance.
Games Started: 55
Analysis: Crawford has always been an under-the-radar stellar goaltender, and he usually does not get enough credit for how much he helps this Blackhawks team. This season, he has been good and has stats very similar to Rinne’s. Based on the comparison, it seems like neither team has a true advantage in terms of goaltending, as both know how to get wins in the playoffs and both have played at a similar level this season.
Will P.K. Subban become Playoff Killer Subban?
P.K. Subban is an electrifying figure in hockey, and is an elite player on the ice. After battling a back injury for a good chunk of the season, Subban didn’t find that next level of production he was looking for.
Now may be the time to find it.
He has always been a stellar player, putting up 38 points in 55 playoff games, and always has a clutch goal or two in him, especially in overtime. With the intensity of the playoffs, Subban may get the chance to rise up and take charge of this team.
Even though he liked what he saw from Subban in his recovery from injury, Laviolette did not want to focus too much attention on his star defenseman.
“It’s good that he’s over that and past that,” Laviolette said. “Let’s be honest here, everybody is going to have to step up and shine. [Subban] is going to have to play well, but all of us are going to have to play well. It’s not just hinging on him. Chicago has got a good team, we’re going to have to play good hockey. P.K. is going to have to play well, all of our guys are going to have to play well.”
How will the fourth line look?
With the team’s offense floundering midway through the season, the Predators brought in players like McLeod, Fiddler and Zolnierczyk to bring some toughness to the lineup. That dose of veteran punch-packing sparked the team and helped them find their groove down the stretch.
It worked for awhile, but when the Predators tried to roll that checking line again late in the season, it just didn’t look the same. They held their own, but they couldn’t bring that spark and edge that the line brought to the team.
With a Blackhawks team that can roll four top-level lines with ease, it may behoove the Predators to do without the grit and instead elect for four lines of scoring talent.
Can the Predators stay healthy?
As noted before, injuries to Shea Weber and Mike Fisher cost the Predators dearly back in 2015. Obviously, it is next to impossible to prevent serious injury, but the Predators cannot afford a major player going down to injury. Playing against a deep team like the Blackhawks is hard enough, but doing it without a major contributor is extremely difficult to pull off.
But hey, other teams have made playoff runs without big names. Remember: the Lightning made the 2016 Eastern Conference Final without Steven Stamkos.
This series essentially boils down to whether on not these Nashville Predators have truly changed and evolved. They have made mistakes in the past and have suffered playoff disappointments. In 2017, this team has matured, has evolved and is on its way to being the best it could possibly be. If this team truly has evolved, then they might have a shot at winning this series.
In addition, the Predators absolutely must win games on the road. Mathematically, they will not be able to win otherwise, and in terms of momentum, they need to steal one of the first two games on the road. If they do, they’ll have a much easier time with winning games at home and ultimately taking the series.
Predators over Blackhawks in Seven Games
Remember, Penalty Box Radio will have all your Stanley Cup Playoff coverage throughout the next couple of months, so stay tuned!