A year ago, the Nashville Predators looked at the standings and found themselves three points short of the playoffs for the first time in 4 years. Calgary, St. Louis, Columbus, Anaheim, and Minnesota were ahead of Nashville with the last 4 being separated by a mere four points. Fast forward to the present and the playoff picture looks different for the 2009/2010 season. Calgary, St. Louis, Columbus, and Anaheim are out and Colorado, Nashville, Phoenix, and Los Angeles are in. And while the stories of Colorado, Phoenix, and LA are remarkable, failing to mention the success of the Nashville Predators would be nothing short of criminal.
But no team has ever been remembered for just making it to the playoffs. To be recognized, you have to succeed when it matters most. And for the Nashville Predators, that means a first round series against the multi-talented Chicago Blackhawks. After being bounced out of the playoffs by San Jose and Detroit for 4 of the last 5 years, Nashville is thrilled to take their chances against a new opponent. Unfortunately for Nashville, the Blackhawks might be the toughest team they have faced in the playoffs.
Against most teams, Nashville can argue their advantage isn’t elite players that put up huge points, but in the collective contributions of the entire team. The problem is that argument doesn’t work with Chicago. Patrick Kane led Chicago with 30 goals which equal the 30 goals that Patrick Hornqvist scored for Nashville. The major difference lies beneath the top scorers from each team. Nashville has one other player who scored 20 goals (Martin Erat), whereas Chicago has 5 (Toews, Sharp, Hossa, Versteeg, and Brouwer). Chicago ranks 3rd in the league behind only Washington and Vancouver in goals scored, whereas Nashville ranks 18th. ADVANTAGE: CHICAGO
Defensively, the Blackhawks rank 5th is goals allowed. Unlike the four teams ahead of them (NJ, Boston, Phoenix, and Buffalo), the high ranking isn’t a result of goaltending. Chicago has arguably the best defensive corps in the league when healthy. The loss of Brian Campbell to a separated collar bone places a major dent in their armor. Additionally, Kim Johnsson hasn’t played a game since March 13th due to an upper body injury. It remains to be seen whether either will be ready for the playoffs. With Brian Campbell in the lineup, Chicago has a clear advantage on defense. Without him, it’s a tossup as to who has the better defense. One player that might be the difference maker is Dan Hamhuis. Not known for scoring and well known for lapses in judgment, Hamhuis has played up and down all year. Nashville knows it can rely on Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. If Hamhuis raises his game for the playoffs and pairs up well with Cody Franson, it might be just enough to free up Suter and Weber to focus more on their offensive game. The other wildcard defensively for Nashville is the parings that coach Barry Trotz utilizes. Outside of the Suter/Weber line, the remaining for blueliners have all played together at one point in time this year. While none have totally impressed, the line of Dan Hamhuis / Kevin Klien has been a disaster. If Trotz decides to reunite them for the playoffs, Pred Nation will head for the exits. ADVANTAGE: CHICAGO
When it comes to the playoffs, the success of any team ultimately comes down to goaltending. Chicago has the hotter goalie in Antti Niemi while Nashville has the more experienced goaltender in Pekka Rinne. Both are capable of putting the team on their shoulders and throwing a shutout against their opponent as evidenced by their seven shutouts each. And while both teams split time equally throughout the year with two goalies, both Rinne an Niemi solidified their hold between the pipes down the stretch. Neither has played in a playoff game so experience in the playoffs is a tossup. If Rinne is able to control the rebounds, Nashville will have the slight advantage. But that advantage would be neutralized by Chicago’s defensive advantage. ADVANTAGE: NEUTRAL
If there was one glaring weakness for Nashville, it would be special teams. Historically, Nashville has been at the top of the penalty kill rankings and the bottom of the power play rankings. This year, neither has been impressive. Nashville ranks 28th in the league on the penalty kill and 24th on the power play. Conversely, Chicago ranks 16th on the power play, and 4th on the penalty kill. While neither team is overly impressive on the power play, Chicago has the slight advantage due to its impressive penalty kill. Fortunately, neither both teams rank near the top of the league in penalty minutes with Nashville ranked #1 and Chicago at #5. If Nashville stays out of the penalty box, it nullifies any advantage Chicago may have on the power play. ADVANTAGE: NEUTRAL
Both teams finished the season with a 6-3-1 record in their last 10 games. The difference, though, Nashville was fighting for a playoff position, whereas Chicago had guaranteed a playoff spot weeks ago. Chicago was expected to make it to the playoffs whereas Nashville was expected to rank in the bottom five teams in the league. It could be argued that Nashville lost an opportunity to finish higher in the rankings by losing key games to Phoenix, Detroit, and Los Angeles down the stretch. Chicago, though, lost a tough game against Detroit in the final game of the season that would have guaranteed them the first seed in the West. ADVANTAGE: NEUTRAL
Barry Trotz is considered one of the league’s best regular season coaches. But he hasn’t figured out how to win on the road in the playoffs or lead the team to the second round. Conversely, Joel Quenneville has advanced his teams to the second round eight times in his career and to the conference finals twice. One area that might come into play is offensive and defensive pairings that Barry Trotz puts on the ice. Due to inconsistent contributions up and down the lineup, Trotz has shuffled his lineup cards throughout the season. Certain pairings are known not to work (Hamhuis/Klien and Legwand/Erat). On certain nights, the lineup looks like a team of All Stars. On other nights, the lineup looks like a team from the KHL. If Barry Trotz can find lightning in a bottle with his lineup parings, he might narrow the advantage that Quenneville has in playoff success. But truth be told, very rarely does the outcome of a playoff series come down to coaching. The players play, the coaches coach. And there has never been a coach score the game winning goal. ADVANTAGE: QUENNEVILLE
On paper, there is no reason to suggest Nashville will challenge Chicago in this series. Chicago is clearly the better team based both on their record and talent level. But the NHL graveyard is filled with superior talented teams that have lost to lower seeds. When it comes to the playoffs, statistics and regular season records often are thrown out the window. Nashville’s best advantage might be in its history and the chemistry on its roster. It is often said that hockey players have long memories. If that is true, then it is safe to say players such as Steve Sullivan, Jason Arnott, Dan Hamhuis, Shea Weber, and Jordin Tootoo remember the previous losses in the playoffs. Nashville is not a team that restructures its roster every year with multiple free agent signings. 18 of the 21 roster positions were either drafted by Nashville or have played at least three years in the organization. Most of the players came up through the AHL Milwaukee Admirals and have known each other for years. Barry Trotz has been with the Organization since its inception along with General Manager David Poile. Collectively the front office, coaches and players have been witness to the success and disappointments of this franchise. If the hockey gods are were to choose a team to support, Nashville would be near the top of the list. What isn’t to like about a team that has made the playoffs 4 of the last 5 years, yet has remained near the bottom of the league in team salary? When it comes to the playoffs in the NHL, there are inevitably 3rd and 4th line players who emerge as the hero’s of a series. Chemistry and determination often trump talent come playoff time. And after four first round eliminations, the Nashville Predators and their fans are ready be this year’s surprise team. ADVANTAGE: NASHVILLE
3 Keys to the Series
1) Who will win the battle between the pipes? Both teams have rookie goalies making their first playoff appearance. Whoever comes out on top between Niemi and Rinne will improve the chances of their team advancing to the 2nd round.
2) Can Nashville win on the road? One of the main reasons why Nashville has never advanced to the 2nd round is their inability to win on the road come playoff time. Nashville has never won a road game in the playoffs.
3) Can Nashville generate secondary scoring? Nashville can’t rely on one or two players to score. Players like Patrick Hornqvist, Jason Arnott, and Martin Erat will need to continue to lead the team in scoring. But for Nashville to win, they will need contributions from all four lines and from the defense to put points on the scoreboard. Nashville can win 2-1 and 3-2 games. They can’t win 6-5 games unless their 3rd and 4th line players step up.
About the Author
Written by Mark Jasper