Spring is in the air, and that means it’s time for the most electrifying of sports competitions, the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The hockey gods have seen fit to bless us this year with some truly exciting first round matchups…in the Eastern Conference. Yes, the first round in the west appears to be a bit of a snoozer this year, but think of it as the small salad that you use to whet your appetite for that 64oz porterhouse you ordered in round 2, or the dynamite dessert you can’t wait for in round 3. Restaurant analogies aside, let’s dive right into our preview of the this year’s 2 vs. 7 matchup, the Chicago Blackhawks and the Nashville Predators.
Seasons in Review
The Preds stumbled out of the gate this year, amassing a pedestrian 8-8-1 record before a big homestand ignited them on a 17-6-2 tear over their next 25 games, placing them firmly in the playoff race for the remainder of the season. You can attribute their 7 seed not to their play (they won three of their last four) but that of the blazing hot teams above them, who simply refused to lose down the stretch. 100 points is a hard luck 7 seed.
The Blackhawks roared to the top of the Central Division standings early on and placed a virtual stranglehold on their division crown in December (thanks in large part to a wounded Detroit squad) and set their sights on home ice advantage. Despite setting a single season team record for both wins and points, the Hawks fell just one point short of the top spot in the Western Conference.
All six games between the two teams this season ended in regulation, with the Blackhawks taking 4 of them, including a decisive home and home series on Boxing Day weekend that crushed the Predators’ hopes of catching them for the division lead. Despite being in the same division, the teams have not yet met in 2010.
Players to Watch
Patric Hornqvist, F Nashville
The Preds’ very own “Mr. Irrelevant” burst onto the scene this year, leading the team with 30 goals and tied with Steve Sullivan for the team lead in points. This will be his first playoff series.
Marian Hossa, F Chicago
Fair or not, Hossa has a reputation for disappearing offensively during the playoffs. Will this be the year he sheds that stigma?
Antti Niemi, G Chicago
Niemi has never been in a playoff game before (he did sit on the bench for a game in last year’s conference finals), and now finds himself saddled with the starting job, charged with taking a cup favorite all the way to the promised land. Can he handle the job?
Shea Weber, D Nashville
Weber will have his hands full, as the Preds will look for him to put in solid performances at both ends of the ice. Look for him to continue to be an offensive threat, but it will be interesting to see if he can also handle his defensive assignments.
Pay close attention to the pace of these games. The Blackhawks love to play an uptempo style with very few whistles and lots of space. The Predators like to slow the game down and gum up the neutral zone. It will be interesting to see which style of play wins out, and whether either team can adapt. High scoring affairs almost certainly favor the Hawks, while low offense grinders could go either way.
Chicago simply has too much depth up front for the Preds to match, and with Nashville’s scoring differential at 0 (the Hawks at +62 were second only to Washington), Pekka Rinne or Dan Ellis would need to be otherworldly for four games out of seven and I just don’t see that happening. I say the Hawks take it in 5 games.
Since the Harlem Globetrotters weren’t aware that the Blackhawks would have home ice advantage for the first round, the series will start Friday at 7:30pm local time, and continue every other day. In Chicago, you can catch the game on Comcast Sports Net, or on TSN2 in Canada. Let the games begin!
About the Author
Written by Adam Seidman
Adam can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org