Six X-factors that may decide the Blackhawks-Predators series
The Nashville Predators aren’t your typical eighth seed. With the addition of top center Ryan Johansen last season and No. 1 defenseman P.K. Subban last summer, the Predators were a trendy pick to reach the Stanley Cup Final this season.
And for good reason. They have high-end scorers up front and one of the best and most aggressive blue lines in the league, led by Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm.
In fact, if not for a dreadful 6-12 record in overtime and shootouts, the Predators easily could have been a 100-point team. And there are no three-on-three overtimes or shootouts to worry about in the playoffs.
‘‘It’s a tough team to play against, no doubt,’’ Hawks star Patrick Kane said. ‘‘I think it’s one of the tougher teams in the league.’’
But look on the bright side: The two times the Hawks have faced the Predators in the first round of the playoffs — 2010 and 2015 — they went on to win the Stanley Cup. Here are some X-factors that might determine whether it happens again.
Noteworthy: Both teams have middle-of-the-pack power plays and mediocre penalty kills. Both are strong puck-possession teams at five-on-five. Both have deep blue lines. So this series might come down to good, old-fashioned star power. The Hawks have the bigger names, with Kane, Artemi Panarin, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa. But the Predators have their share of offensive firepower. Since the Christmas break, Filip Forsberg has scored 26 goals, third-most in the league. Victor Arvidsson, one of the best players you might never have heard of, has 22 during that span. Right in between? Kane, with 24. All three of those players can take over a game and a series singlehandedly. The only difference is that Kane has done it before and the 22-year-old Forsberg and 24-year-old Arvidsson haven’t.
Quoteworthy: ‘‘You know they’re going to be pumped up,’’ Kane said. ‘‘They’re trying to make a name for themselves, too. There’s a lot of skill there.’’
Pin them back
Noteworthy: What separates the Predators’ blue line from most others is how active the defensemen are in the offense. It’s not unusual to see Josi or Subban leading the rush, not simply joining it. So one key is being smart with the puck and not giving the Predators chances to flip the ice in a hurry off turnovers. Another key is to forecheck with abandon. The Hawks aren’t the most tenacious forechecking team around, but they’ll need to do the dirty work deep in the offensive zone to pin the Predators’ defensemen deep in their own zone. Otherwise, goalie Corey Crawford will be facing too many four-on-threes and three-on-twos.
Quoteworthy: ‘‘We know their ‘D’ like to get into the play a lot, so finishing checks is big,’’ winger Jordin Tootoo said. ‘‘That means putting pucks in areas where we’ve got to make sure their ‘D’ turn and not necessarily crush guys, but make sure you finish on every opportunity.’’
Who’s on fourth?
Noteworthy: These are two of the deepest teams in the league. The Hawks have a league-high six 20-goal scorers (and Ryan Hartman had 19). The Predators have only three (Forsberg and Arvidsson with 31 each and James Neal with 23), but they actually might be deeper up front. The Predators have 12 10-goal scorers and 13 players with at least 20 points. The Hawks have a solid top three lines that are set, but the fourth line — other than Tanner Kero at center — remains in flux, with six wingers in the mix. The Hawks won their three Stanley Cups this decade on the strength of their four-line rotation and will have to find it quickly to make another run. John Hayden and Tootoo will get the first crack at flanking Kero on the fourth line. It likely will fall on Toews’ line or Marcus Kruger’s line to slow down the Predators’ superb trio of Forsberg, Johansen and Arvidsson.
Quoteworthy: ‘‘On every shift, we want to make sure we have a four-line rotation,’’ coach Joel Quenneville said. ‘‘Everybody has to be able to play against anybody in the game.’’
Noteworthy: Where the Predators fall short is in goal. Pekka Rinne and Crawford both had a .918 save percentage this season, and Rinne actually was excellent down the stretch (.932 save percentage and 1.98 goals-against average in his final 13 starts). That’s the Rinne of old. If he can keep playing like that, the Predators absolutely can steal this series. But history suggests he can’t. In the postseason, Rinne has posted a pedestrian .912 save percentage and 2.51 GAA in his career. As for Crawford, as proven as he is, don’t forget the Predators briefly cost him his job by scoring nine goals in four periods against him in the first round two years ago.
Quoteworthy: ‘‘Big goaltender, never quits on a play,’’ Kane said. ‘‘He’s one of those guys that’s going to be tough to beat with a shot if you’re straight-on with him.’’
Kids take the stage
Noteworthy: Nick Schmaltz returned from Rockford a changed man, confident and aggressive. Hartman has been invaluable all season, versatile and tenacious. Kero has been a surprising stalwart, reliable and responsible. Hayden has the look of a Quenneville favorite, physical and hard-working. But none of them has played in a Stanley Cup playoff game. And none of them has played a season this long, this taxing. How the rookies hold up under the unrelenting pressure and grind of the playoffs will go a long way toward determining the Hawks’ fate. Of course, with six three-time champs to lean on, that burden is eased a bit.
Quoteworthy: ‘‘When you show that nothing really fazes you, regardless of what the other team throws at you, it’s kind of an intimidating thing,’’ Toews said. ‘‘So that experience is obviously something that we expect from our lineup going forward.’’
Center of attention
Noteworthy: Artem Anisimov hasn’t played since suffering a leg injury March 14, but he is expected to play in Game 1, returning to his usual spot between Panarin and Kane. After skating for a week in Chicago during the Hawks’ recent road trip, his conditioning should be fine, but how about his timing? Few players can do what Kane did two years ago, when he returned from a broken clavicle and stepped in for Game 1 without missing a beat. Anisimov matched a career high with 22 goals before the injury, and his excellent all-around play is critical to the Hawks’ success. Anisimov plays a significant role at even strength, on the power play and on the penalty kill. But only if he’s 100 percent.
Quoteworthy: ‘‘I’m going to continue to go to the net and play hard every shift and do all my stuff,’’ Anisimov said.
It’s anything but an ideal first-round cakewalk for the Hawks, but the edges in goaltending and experience are big ones. Hawks in 6.
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