Two months ago this matchup didn’t quite seem possible, as the Predators appeared to be running away with the Central Division crown. Then came their downfall that landed them as the second seed in the Central, leading us to a rematch of the 2010 Western Conference Quarterfinals. The Blackhawks haven’t necessarily been playing well either, and have lost four straight games heading into the playoffs. Putting all of that behind us, there are many factors that come into play when trying to determine a winner in this series.
I said it in my “predictions” post that I think the Hawks will win this series in six games. Obviously it could go four, five, or seven games, but regardless I still think the Blackhawks will advance. The questions is, how will they advance?
-First of all, Patrick Kane is back and will be playing in Game One. That right there is a huge advantage in favor of the Hawks, who badly need to get their offense and powerplay back on the right track. I think we all know just how valuable a player Kane is, so I won’t elaborate anymore on him.
-Secondly, the Hawks’ defense has to be playing at the top of their game. Kimmo Timonen will be back to start the series after missing the last handful of games to close out the regular season, and his presence on the team’s blue line gives them more depth and reliability. That means nothing, however, if his partner (likely Rundblad or Rozsival) continues to be a liability. In the top four, we pretty much know what we’re going to get for the most part. Seabrook always seems to have the ability to stink, as does Oduya, but hopefully those two play the way they have lately and like they did in 2013. If it were up to me, I’d have the d-pairings look like 2-7, 4-27, 44-32. Keith and Seabrook, and Oduya and Hjalmarsson all seem to play better when they are paired that way.
The Blackhawks finished the year as the second best team in hockey in goals against per game, which says a lot about their team defense (and goaltending, which we’ll get to). The problem that the blue liners of the Hawks have had is their giveaways in their own zone and the neutral zone. More often this year than in years past we’ve seen Blackhawks defensemen pass the puck right to the opposition at the Hawks’ own blue line or in the neutral zone, leading to incredible scoring chances for the other team. This cannot continue to happen. Mistakes like these are usually mental ones and can be eliminated or at least cut back on.
While the Predators don’t present the best group of forwards in the league by any means, they’re still good and can take advantage of mistakes. I’m not too worried about the actual defensive play of the Hawks’ top five d-men, but they cannot afford to turn the puck over.
-Corey Crawford is coming off of arguably his best regular season since becoming the team’s number one goalie, earning his second career Jennings Trophy, and he’ll need to keep it up for the next couple months. He and his backups are a HUGE reason why the Blackhawks ended with over 100 points this year, so hopefully he can keep that up as well as get some more goal scoring from his teammates in front of him.
-Line combinations always are, and will continue to be a huge part of the playoffs. Right now, unfortunately, Joel Quenneville has his lines messed up. In the team’s last two practices, including today, the line combos were Saad-Toews-Hossa, Versteeg-Richards-Kane, Bickell-Shaw-Sharp, Nordstrom-Kruger-Teravainen. As you may have noticed, Antoine Vermette is missing from those line combos. Yes, that’s the same guy that the Hawks traded away a first round pick and arguably their top defensive prospect for at the trade deadline. And yes, he’s still one of the league’s best players at winning faceoffs. Yet he appears to be a healthy scratch for Game One.
The first question that pops into my head is why did they trade for him if he’s going to sit for Game One of the playoffs? I’m guessing that’s a common question among fans right now, but it’s not really a good one. A better question is what makes Joakim Nordstrom and Kris Versteeg more valuable than Vermette? Nordstrom is a fourth line player who is smart and reliable on the penalty kill. Guess what? So is Antoine Vermette, who’s also a better all-around player. As for Versteeg, he has been the worst Hawk over the last month and a half and has provided next to zero production for the team over that span. What makes him so irreplaceable? What Quenneville is probably thinking is that with Kane now back, he can reunite that trio of him, Versteeg, and Richards that was so successful back in December. If it works, great. If not, Versteeg should either be in the bottom six or scratched.
Another negative to Vermette apparently being benched is that you now have to play Andrew Shaw at center. Granted, even with Vermette in the lineup this has still recently been the case because Quenneville inexplicably decided to put him at wing. By having Vermette in the lineup and at center, the correct position, Andrew Shaw is moved to the wing where he has been his most effective throughout his career with the Blackhawks. As a wing, Shaw is able to be more involved on the forecheck and doesn’t need to take faceoffs. After acquiring Vermette back in March, the Hawks had Shaw on the wing and he instantly started playing his best hockey of the year. Go figure!
I am extremely hopeful that Quenneville will come to his senses and put the playoff experienced, veteran center Antoine Vermette back in the lineup for Game Two. Better yet, maybe he’ll still play him tomorrow and hope that these last two practices served as a “wake-up call” for Vermette who really does need to step up his game. Best case scenario, the lines for Game One would be Sharp-Toews-Hossa, Saad-Vermette-Kane, Versteeg-Richards-Bickell, Shaw-Kruger-Teravainen.
I’m not saying that the Blackhawks can’t win with the current line combinations, but I also think they’d be a lot better off with Vermette in the lineup on a nightly basis.
This series has the potential to be a really good one. In the end though, I think the Blackhawks are simply too deep and have too much offense (provided they start clicking) for Nashville to handle in a seven game series. I also think that the Blackhawks’ defense and goaltending will triumph over the Nashville forwards.
I hope I’m right…