Game Time: 7:00PM CDT
TV/Radio: CSN, NBCSN (US), TVA-S2 (Canada), WGN-AM 720
Golden Showers: On The Forecheck
The long national nightmare is over, The Chicago Blackhawks are once again playing hockey games that matter. And they’re doing so from their most advantageous position in four years, with home ice for as long as they remain in the Western Conference playoffs. For those counting at home, under Joel Quenneville the Hawks are 11-1 in series wherein they have home ice, the lone outlier being the 2014 Western Conference Final, which took to Game 7 in OT to end. That also remains the only series that the Hawks have ended up losing wherein they have taken Game 1. The road is laid out for them, and the first step is tonight on West Madison against the Nashville Predators.
The Preds had high expectations this year from basically everyone, this site included, after the acquistition of PK Subban in the summer in exchange for an effective if aging Shea Weber, who had been the face of the franchise. It was a bold progressive move, and under the amped-up style of Peter Laviolette, Subban was to lead a high speed attack from the back end. Only it didn’t quite end up working out that way. Erratic goaltending was always going to be an issue for a team relying on an aging Pekka Rinne, and a lack of depth both up front and behind Subban and Josi on the blue line couldn’t mask Rinne’s cold streaks. The result has been basically a .500 team, though given the state of the Western Conference it was still enough to clinch a playoff berth with a week to spare (Thanks Dean Lombardi).
That lack of forward depth will be on full display tonight, because after the regular season dynamism of the top line of Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, and a breakout performance from Swedish bowling ball Viktor Arvidsson, there just simply isn’t a lot here. The primary and peripheral numbers of the #1 unit should give most pause, as both Forsberg and Arvidsson topped 30 goals this year, and as a group their share of shot attempts doesn’t waver much from around 55% regardless of any kind of parsing and statistical splits that can be drilled down into. But piling those numbers up in a watered down league over the course of an 82 game schedule is a bit different than seeing the same matchup over and over in a playoff series, and the line will not have the advantage of picking their matchups tonight or Saturday. Behind them is the Preds’ simulacrum of a checking line anchored by tabloid fodder and retrograde right wing religious zealot dipshit Mike Fisher, who will be 37 in June. In the regular season Fisher was barely above water in possession, but even shooting well above his career average, he simply doesn’t get the opportunities he used to, and the hope is to have him merely play his matchup to a draw. Having James Neal on his line helps with the scoring punch, but Neal is approaching 30 and still cannot contain his youthful exuberance, and the playoffs only amplify his mentality. He will skate himself out of position to chase hits or run his mouth or take a relaliatory penalty, and the clock is officially ticking. Kevin Fiala is on Fisher’s opposite site, and while he does have some speed and skill that are commensurate with first round draft pedigree, it hasn’t manifested at the pro level just yet. As for the bottom six, it’s really ugly. Though Calle Jarnkrok and Colin Wilson are presumed to be out (Jarkrok was present at the morning skate, however), they are not world beaters by any stretch, even if Wilson and Craig Smith turn into Glenn Anderson and Jari Kurri against the Hawks as it seems. And Laviolette is seriously planning on dressing a line with Cody McLeod and Harry Zolnierczyk on it on the road.
On the Preds’ blue line, Roman Josi and PK Subban have finally been split up to give the grouping a fair bit of balance, but it’s still mostly propped up by the individual skill levels of those two. Subban is now paired with Mattias Ekholm, who brings size and plays a solid centerfield for Subban’s encouraged walkabouts, but putting Ryan Ellis with Roman Josi would seem to create a situation where one of the two of them would be sacrificing a major portion of their games in rushing the puck in order to cover for his partner. And what’s left on the third pairing of Yannick Weber and Matt Irwin is going to need to be extremely sheltered on the road.
In net, Ol’ Shit Hip rides again for the Preds, and he comes into tonight playing about as well as he has all season, throwing a .932 overall since the start of March. Of course, that was preceded by an .888 February and he has not been able to put together two consistent months all season long, which would make sense considering he’s 35, and 6’5″ goalies with septic fluid in their hip joints don’t necessarily get more mobile as a season progresses. The book is still the same on Rinne though, avoid the glove at all costs, get him moving laterally to open up a the large five hole all oversized goalies have exacerbated by the Shit Hip of his namesake, and it doesn’t hurt to make him wander out of his crease to handle the puck either. Rinne’s regular season workload has been extreme for what feels like forever, and while he still played in 61 games this year, his understudy Juuse Saros did show promise in limited action, and if Rinne isn’t up to the task, the hook may finally come for him. Rinne has been solid for so long, but what he is is a goalie that can steal a game, but not win a series on his own, with a career .912 in late spring. It would take him doing something he’s never done for the Preds to get the requisite .930 to give themselves a fighting chance.
As for the Men of Four Feathers, Artem Anisimov will return to the lineup for the first time since it looked like his ankle snapped in Montreal. He’ll assume his usual spot between the Style Boyz, which finally, mercifully slots Tanner Kero down to the fourth line where he belongs. It also keeps the Schmaltz-Toews-Panik line together, though they had been for a fair amount of the games prior to sewing things up and weren’t nearly as raucous as they were a month prior. Marcus Kruger will get Hartman and Hossa as wingers, and it bears watching to see if Hartmania can keep a lid on his energy, as he got reckless enough towards the end of the season to earn a punitive press box seat after playing with an extraordinary amount of composure for the type of game he plays for so long. If he can harness all of that energy properly, he could prove to be a real weapon coming from the third line regardless of what their assignment is. As veteran and a bit of a late-season surge, Jordin Tootoo at least has earned the right to start the playoffs in uniform and against his old team, but if he can’t hack it there’s no room for Quenneville to be overly sentimental about what he actually offers, as John Hayden has shown he can be an asset when that far down the lineup.
On the blue line, at least for now, Keith and Hjalmarsson remain paired together and that should work alright when the Hawks are at home and against this Preds forward group, as there’s an obvious singular focus on who their matchup will be. But behind them Johnny Oduya has looked every bit of 36, and Brent Seabrook’s outlet passing doesn’t really hide that fact when they’re both getting their doors blown off, and Laviolette is a smart enough coach to try to get his top line into that matchup or against the third pairing if at all possible. Campbell and Passenger 57 still comprise said third pairing, and the hope is that one of the inevitable 6 to 8 ill-advised bad TVR pinches doesn’t bite the Hawks in the dick.
Corey Crawford gets his net, and he will surely want to atone for the last time he saw the Predators and he simply didn’t have it and Scott Darling turned into a folk hero by getting the team’s collective ass out of a sling. Despite what anyone will say, Crawford is one of the most consistently performing goalies in the league, and if the Hawks can keep things at even strength, if Crawford can see it he’ll probably be able to stop it.
And that will be key for the Hawks- staying the hell out of the box. With the Preds being as top heavy as they are, keeping things at evens gives them more matchups to exploit, or at the very least will begin to exhaust the Predators top forwards and D by having to remain on the ice out of necessity. But giving three outstanding shooting defensemen in Ellis, Josi, and the right handed bazooka of PK Subban the opportunity to tee up on the power play would be making life much more difficult. Keep it 5 on 5 and let the forward depth take over.
It begins tonight. Let’s go Hawks.