As March comes to a close in whatever this oddball, virus-addled, mutation of a season ends up being, games that were already the proverbial “Four Pointers” between divisional opponents have started to become even more magnified, especially with the added element of “series” play introduced where a team can gain ground quickly if so inclined. It’s just such a weekend for the Hawks and visiting Preds, who sit on opposite sides of the playoff line in the Central division.
Nashville comes to the West Side four points behind the Hawks having both played 34 games, and with the Preds holding the regulation wins tiebreaker 11 to 10 over the Hawks, while the Hawks currently have an edge in non-shootout wins with 14 to Nashville’s 13. To say this is a make or break weekend for the Preds would be underselling it by quite a bit, and they’re hitting it at just the right time having just won 6 of 7, with wins over Tampa, the Panthers, and Dallas in the process, along with an appropriate ass waxing of the Wings earlier this week.
Part of the reason is that they’ve finally been getting solid goaltending from what’s been basically a strict platoon of Ol Shit Hip and Jusse Saros, with Rinne covering for Saros’ injury earlier in the month. Both will get a start given the back to back nature of the weekend, and Saros in particular has been excellent when he’s been in net with a .940 at evens and .920 overall, while Rinne is finally showing his age with an .898 overall and just a .912 at evens. What has hurt both of them is that the Preds PK sucks out loud and is even worse than the Hawks, ranked 30th in the league at just a 71.9 clip. Given Saros’ diminutive size it might seem obvious that just parking a large ass in front of him would cause him a sever disadvantage, but the enormous Rinne has fared even worse, which points to this being a structural problem.
On the Preds’ blue line, it’s not a coincidence that this hot streak has coincided with the return of reigning Norris winner Roman Josi from injury, who despite missing seven games and being a defenseman, is still the Predators’ second leading scorer, and has been most recently paired with Dante Fabbro with his traditional partner Ryan Ellis still out with an elbow injury. In Josi’s absence Matthias Ekholm had been taking the #1 minutes and was quite a subject of trade bait as the Preds floundered, but for the time being remains here and paired with Alexandre Carrier. The pairing has been just slightly below water while getting a fairly even distribution of zone starts in their 131-ish minutes of 5v5 together, while Josi and Fabbro tilt the ice as a very favorable 54.74% mark. Between Ekholm and Josi, the third pairing of Ben Harpur and Matt Benning get used rather sparingly, and that’s probably a good thing considering they’re getting their skulls caved in in possession. Overall as a team the Preds are 8th in the league with a 52% share, so they can clearly still push the pace from the back end, they’ve just been undone by needing to rely on Rinne more than they would have liked to, and their forward group being quite ham-handed.
Speaking of which, the Preds’ perennial top line has been broken up of late, with the eternally elite prospect Eeli Tolvanen moving up alongside Treat Boy Ryan Johansen and leading scorer Filip Forsberg, while Viktor Arvidsson is now opposite Calle Jarnkrok with Mikael Granlund moving back to his natural center position on the second line. The Preds’ third line is quite possibly the most aggrivating in the entire sport, with eternal Hawks Pest Erik Haula centering credibly accused rapist Nick Cousins and Rocco Grimaldi, hockey’s version of Tim Tebow, who just scored four goals against the pathetic Red Wings on Thursday. Colton Sissons is centering the AI generated beings of Yakov Trenin and Olivier on the fourth line to round out the group. Aside from Forsberg, there just isn’t any finish in this group top to bottom, and when they score it’s ultimately through the sheer volume of shots. But they are fast 1 through 12 other than Johansen, and those two factors make them a bad matchup for the Hawks, as was laid bare all the way back in January.
As for the Men of Four Feathers, while there has been no official news out of today’s skate, Kirby Dach has been conspicuously taking time with the first unit power play during practice, so he could very well make an appearance this weekend, though The Collaborative Communicator did neither of those things when talking to the media about tonight’s lineup. One thing that is for certain is that it will not feature Ian Mitchell, who has been sent up I-90 to the Winnebago County Frozen Swine. Mitchell certainly flashed a few weeks ago, most notably his goal against the Whalercanes in a losing effort, but was utterly swirlied by the Lightning’s forwards during their visit to Club 1901 which led to his subsequent scratching, and since getting back into the lineup he hasn’t looked nearly as sure. Best case scenario is that it’s the rookie wall, worst case is that this system and being benched now has now fried his internal computer with regard to his positioning and offensive risks. Development is not linear and this is a normal part of the process for tons of solid NHLers, but it’s worth monitoring this situation closely as it relates to the mid and long term goals for the Hawks.
As a result, the lineup tonight could realistically be anything, but it seems fairly clear that Kevin Lankinen will be getting has cage back after a 41 save shutout on Thursday, with Malcolm Subban getting tomorrow evening’s game. Both figure to have plenty of work, as the Preds put up the 5th most shots at 5v5 per 60 minutes in the league with just over 31, and on the flip side, the Hawks give up the second most in the league at 32.93.
The Hawks backed up their best win of the season on Tuesday against the Panthers by doing what they always do on Thursday – surrendering a shitload of shots and hoping to fuck that the power play which has a Hart finalist on it and their goalie bail them the hell out. This weekend presents another opportunity to avoid doing what they always have done under Coach Jeremy Prinze, Jr., and that’s completely shit their pants against a divisional opponent when it’s time to make a statement vis a vis the playoff standings. If the Hawks can win both of these games in regulation, even with 4 more head to heads against the Preds, they’d be put 8 points back with 22 to play, and that’s tough to surmount in today’s Loser Point NHL. Conversely, the Preds can vault both the Jackets and Hawks and put themselves in the 4th spot in the Central with 2 regulation wins, and create even more havoc as the Stars play a breakneck pace of makeup games. Or…they split and go to OT both games and nothing is decided. Anything Is Possible. Let’s go Hawks.