Just yesterday, I wrote an article describing the ability of the Wild to come back in their series down 0-2. No one should doubt that the Blackhawks are entirely capable of achieving the same against the Predators. The question is whether they will.
The Predators were perhaps the most overlooked team this post-season, with nearly all analysts picking the Blackhawks to take the series rather easily. This is particularly odd because offensively, the teams were practically indistinguishable (at 2.43 GF60 and 2.42 GF60 respectively). At 5 on 5, the Predators only scored 5 less goals all season long. Down the home stretch of the season, the Predators won their last 4 while the Blackhawks went winless. Although both teams have had an increase in overall offense compared to last season, Nashville had less of a drastic up-hike, suggesting less deviation from the expected output. The Predators are also far less top heavy than the Hawks – their scoring is more evenly stretched out across their lineup and not concentrated around four particular players. The Hawks’ fourth line is noteworthy in how uninspiring it is – Jordin Tootoo and John Hayden usually average 8 and 11 minutes a piece. Finally, Pekka Rinne had a historically bad season by his standards in 2015-16 (in which the Predators took the Western Conference champs to a Game 7) – but he has returned to form in a big way this season, with a respectable (if unremarkable) .918 save percentage.
Then there’s the defense – the Blackhawks have shown signs of weakness. Duncan Keith had a solid showing, but not his Norris standard. His Corsi For was his worst since his rookie season at 50.7% – he has trended around 54%. Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brent Seabrook have also had down seasons, Seabrook at 50%, and Hjalmarsson at 45%. After these three defenders there is a massive gap in talent. Part of the reason that these top three are having a difficult time is because they have had to log massive amounts of minutes against top players. Both Johnny Oduya and Brian Campbell have struggled to log the minutes of years past, and both have faced lower quality of competition. Each has averaged around 18 minutes of ice and it doesn’t seem like Joel Quenneville is particularly confident in putting them out there in all situations these playoffs. Trevor van Reimsdyk has performed admirably in his role, but has yet to be a positive player in a post-season year. Even against Keith, the speed of the Predators’ forwards has created fits and frantic backpedaling. With how dominant Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi and crew have looked, it is more than fair to draw comparisons.
Ultimately, the Blackhawks need to score in order to advance. Peter Laviolette has the Predators rolling as a fine-tuned forecheck machine, and Chicago seems to have been shell-shocked. Their zone time in the most recent game was frankly horrible. The 5-0 obliteration was a natural continuation of the frustrated offense the Hawks experienced in the first game, and it seems apparent that whatever game-planning occurred between the two matches fell far short of the mark. Shots were constantly blocked by the Preds and the ones that got through were not dangerous. The amount of hype that preceded Chicago headed into these playoffs was largely unwarranted – they didn’t dominate any advanced stat and only won the division by a slight margin, while their top players looked far less dynamic than the previous year. But let us not discount the effort and depth of the Predators. On paper, this isn’t a roster that is star-studded or wonderfully exciting, but they have been constructed well for playoff hockey and now have the experience to close a series. Their third line has performed well above expectations and their top guns are firing away. Underestimating this squad would be a deadly error for any team, no matter how many cups they’ve won in years past.