Nashville Skyline: Blackhawks Vs. Predators Preview
After finishing a 2014-15 season that saw more plot twists than a sleazy reality show, the Blackhawks ended the season with 102 points but still finished third in their division. They begin anew Wednesday with yet another playoff run, this time facing off against the Nashville Predators. This Hawks team has left many fans and analysts scratching their heads— one minute they look like the Stanley Cup favorites everyone expected and the next they lose their final four games while fighting for the top spot in the division. The Predators, meanwhile, are no world-beaters. They limp into the playoffs losing their final six games. They also lost what was once a commanding lead in the division, surpassed by the St. Louis Blues in the final week. As the series begins, the Hawks are in a better position, but that's largely by default and because a certain mulleted goal-scorer will be returning to the lineup.
It looks like the shrine worked, Patrick Kane will play in the series opener Wednesday after recovering from a broken left clavicle in just seven weeks. The team faired well in his absence, going 12-8-1, but sorely missed his scoring and playmaking ability. Kane's ability to set up teammates and push the defense back will go a long way towards helping his team who have struggled in the offense department. This also means the return of the Kane-Richards-Versteeg line. Whether or not Versteeg deserves a spot on one of the top two lines is up for debate, but it's hard to argue with the success that line saw in the regular season.
With Kane back on the second line, that makes room for Saad on the first line with Jonathan Toews and Marrian Hossa, where he thrives. But with head coach Joel Quenneville, every line is subject to shuffle at any moment during the post season.
While the Blackhawks defensive core has been solid in the goals against category, anyone who has watched closely will tell you they've been prone to breakdowns and sloppy play. Expect the top four defensemen to be the same as they rode to the Western Conference Finals last year, with Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson and Oduya taking a large portion of the ice time. How Quenneville pairs the top two lines is anyone's guess, but expect a rotation of Kimmo Timonen, Michal Rozsival and David Rundblad on the third pairing. Assuming the offense will begin producing, the defensive play could determine how far the Hawks advance. If the miscues and mistakes continue, the Hawks might not make it out of the first round.
Another reason why the goal-against average has been so good for the Hawks is the stellar play from Corey Crawford. From the start of the season (minus that incident at the Rise Against concert) Crawford has been a top ten goalie, posting a .924 save percentage and 2.27 goals against average. However Predators goalie Pekka Rinne has played just as well and will post a significant problem for the Hawks as they try to solve their scoring woes.
As with every team who made the playoffs, the Hawks have a chance to make a deep run or fizzle out in the first round. The parity around the NHL has every team looking over their shoulder and a few upsets are bound to happen. For the Hawks, however, they enter the playoffs with salary cap woes looming in the offseason, likely making this the final playoff run for this group of players. However they played in the regular season expect one hell of a last ride with this group of veterans.