Game Time: 7:30PM Central
TV/Radio: CSN, NBCSN (US), SN360 (Canada), WGN-AM 720
Yellow Ice: On The Forecheck
And so it begins. In all reality, tonight is the first night of the last ride of these Chicago Blackhawks as they are presently constituted. With another salary cap doomsday looming along with diminishing production from some veterans, it’s the general consensus that a retooling is nigh. And the Hawks at current are sixteen wins away from making a definitive statement of this era of the National Hockey League before many will part ways. But it has to start with one.
The first obstacle comes in the form of a resurgent Nashville Predators team, despite what their current six game losing streak would indicate. Upon Barry Trotz’s ouster, Peter Laviolette has brought a more uptempo game to Music City, and the results are there in the form of a 16 point turnaround from last year, going from sitting out on the post season to having home ice in the first round after having been the NHL’s pace car for much of the season. And though Laviolette wants to get up and down the ice where Trotz did not, he’s built the attack on the same foundation- a top flight goalie and arguably the deepest blue line in the league.
Pekka Rinne was on the verge of another Vezina finalist season until he once again got hurt, and Carey Price left the competition in the dust. Rinne’s numbers may have slipped back down to earth in the latter portion of the season, but he’s still a large, athletic body at 6’5″, 206 lbs, and covers a ton of territory. And even with that slip in performance he still ended the year with a .924 save percentage overall, with a galling .932 at even strength. What Rinne doesn’t absorb is often made up for by his lightning quick glove. There aren’t a lot of weaknesses to his game, but as is the case with any tall goalie, particularly one that is more stand-up in style as Rinne, rebound control and shots at his feet can be a problem. He’s also not the most deft puck handler around, so making him corral pucks behind his own net can lead to chances if the Hawks aren’t able to consistently gain the line in a controlled fashion.
But the defensive corps in front of Rinne is what really makes things go for Nashville, as all three pairings have the ability to move the puck up the ice in a quick fashion. Obviously Shea Weber takes the bulk of the tough assignments with under-appreciated Roman Josi, and they keep their heads just barely above water. Seth Jones has been a quick study on the second pair in his second year as a pro, and having Mattias Ekholm as his current partner as opposed to Anton Volchenkov has only expedited that process. Jones not nearly as nasty as his size would seemingly require he be, but in his first taste of the post season, there will be plenty of opportunity to develop that if it’s at all in him. But the third pairing is really where the Predators set themselves apart from the rest of the league, having Ryan Ellis and prodigal son Cody Franson able to take sheltered minutes with offensive zone starts and weak competition, and absolutely demolish it most nights. Franson has a hard, accurate shot, but it’s Ellis that really makes things go, playing a very heady and quick game, driving the play with his legs. Ellis has maintained a 55.5% possession rate all season at evens, and posted 21 even strength points from the blue line to boot.
Up front for the Preds, it appears that their usual top line of Ribeiro, Forsberg, and Neal is going to be getting a bit of a shakeup tonight, with Neal and Craig Smith swapping places within the top six. The real test for the Predators becomes just how much Mike Ribeiro can produce as a true #1 center in the playoffs, as he’s only had mixed results as a #2 or even #3 in his previous intermittent trips there prior to age 35. Putting James Neal with Mike Fisher and Colin Wilson might be a bit of a risk for Laviolette, as Neal can get off his game and chase the physical aspect of it as he’s shown in previous years in Pittsburgh. But Mr. Carrie Underwood is the Preds’ most effective two way center, and giving him a true power forward to work with at home might help balance their even strength scoring. Matt Cullen is still effective from the third line, at least in keeping the puck out of his own end. However the same cannot be said for the fourth line of Gaustad, Bourque, and Beck, who are consistently buried despite Gaustad being an ace at the dot. While this unit normally gets about 12 minutes a night, if they begin to get their heads kicked in it will have a reverberative effect for the Preds. The unit starts the vast majority of their shifts in the defensive zone, and if they can’t be trusted there, that means other lines will have to take them and not have their usual advatage starting at the other end of the ice.
As for our Men of Four Feathers, the slow evolution into a lineup that makes sense from Joel Quenneville has begun, though not without some absolutely baffling choices. Antoine Vermette, who was the top forward available at the deadline and whom the Hawks gave up a first rounder and Klas Dahlbeck for, is a performance based healthy scratch. While Vermette has not had a smooth transition here, he hasn’t been put in a very good position by his coach to succeed. He’s been given time on the wing, and had a rotating cavalcade of wingers when he did get time at the pivot, all while getting no time on either special teams unit. Prior to his arrival, it was long speculated that Vermette would be about the most user-friendly Q toy imaginable given his decade long track record in the league, but once again Quenneville has to outsmart himself and everyone else. What it’s left him with is a completely broken Kris Versteeg in the top six and a miscast Andrew Shaw at center on the third line while the moving goalposts that are benchable offenses in his book continue to confound.
That said, the lineup he’s putting out on the ice right tonight should still be enough to win this series, thanks to the return of Patrick Kane weeks early from a broken collarbone. While there are theories abound regarding whether the Hawks were sandbagging the timeline, potentially for cap benefits, the correct explanation is often the most simple. The initial timeline they gave was merely a conservative one, and being the professional competitor that he is, Kane did his damndest to get back into game shape. In cases like this where it’s a clear broken bone he’s either healed or he’s not, so if he’s cleared to play he should be able to absorb any contact the Preds give out. That doesn’t mean a fandom isn’t going to wince as a collective the first time he gets angled into the boards on his left shoulder.
It appears the blue line is almost sorted out as well, with Kimmo Timonen and Michal Rozsival now relegated to third pair in a case of the elderly leading the undead. Prior to getting dinged up against St. Louis, Kimmo’s game had begun to pick up a bit with him being more aggressive and looking more comfortable out there, but he’ll now have to do it without the security blanket of Brent Seabrook. If these two can be spotted for around 10 minutes with as sheltered of zone starts as Q can manage on the road, they should be fine, leaving the heavy lifting to the top four. Tonight that will be Keith and Hjalmarsson paired together, along with Oduya and Seabrook. This seems overthought as well, but any mixing and matching of these four shouldn’t be a letdown, particularly with how Oduya has looked since returning to action. Corey Crawford gets the start tonight, and no one in Nashville seems afraid of him despite the fact that he’s more decorated than Rinne with his share of a second Jennings and has better numbers than Rinne in this very season.
Game Ones are usually a feeling out process for both teams, particularly in the first round. Having coached against one another before, Quenneville seems to be starting off right away with Toews and Kane split up to be able to get one away from Weber on the road, as opposed to waiting until game 5 in 2010 to get away from Pronger when Laviolette had him shadowing them. It would stand to reason that Laviolette would want to get Mickey Ribs out against the Andrew Shaw line, as that’s the Hawks’ soft spot (by choice) at center, naturally leaving Mike Fisher to take on Toews, Saad, and Hossa. But doing that leaves one of his bottom two lines exposed to Patrick Kane, and whatever percentage he might be at, it’s still quite the gamble. Either way, look for the pace to get pushed tonight early from Nashville, and the Hawks will need to be controlled with their zone exits. There will be space to be found behind the two Predators forecheckers, but it won’t get found blindly firing the puck up the boards. Hawk forwards will need to resist the urge to fly the zone early into that space to make sure they give a realistic target to their defensemen on a breakout pass.
The Hawks have finally reached the part of the season they have explicitly told everyone they were looking ahead to, and this is an opportunity they cannot afford to squander. While getting both at Bridgestone isn’t a necessity, getting one of the first two will be, as the Predators are simply not good at all on the road, and the Hawks can tighten their grip on things when they return to West Madison. Start things off on the right foot. Let’s go Hawks.