Everything Else

 vs. 

RECORDS: Hawks 9-12-5   Predators 17-8-1

PUCK DROP: 7pm

TV: WGN

KISS MY GRITS: On The Forecheck

There’s no such thing as sympathy in the NHL, so even if you’re getting your dick knocked in the dirt night after night, the next team on the docket is going to be real excited to repeat the punishment. So it is for the Hawks, who head from one division favorite to another and the one actually on top, the Nashville Predators. And even in their beat-up state, you fear how quickly it could get out of hand if the Hawks don’t straighten the fuck up. So, cheerful, eh?

Let’s start with the Hawks. Henri Jokiharju will return after an illness, and looks to be paired with Duncan Keith again. The Keith-Forsling Axis Of What The Fuck? never really worked, though it didn’t work for the same reasons that the Keith-HarJu pairing has struggled at times. Both players are inclined to be aggressive and get up the ice, and only one is supposed to play that way. The HarJu is more defensively inclined than Forsling though, and overall this pairing has done ok this season. So it’s good and proper to have it back. But you can look forward to more tweets from us about Keith having to change his game when he gets caught outside the circles again.

That slots Forsling down with Gustafsson in what can only be called “adventure time,” and Brandon Manning and Brent Seabrook are paired in what can only be called “fuck my life.”

Cam Ward looks to be the starter, which is fine because Crawford hasn’t been all that good and could use the extra day. The lines are going to pretty much stay the same, with Dylan Strome at least starting between Alex DeBrincat and Patrick Kane. Jeremy Colliton went away from it in the 3rd against the Jets but will give it another go. To maximize what they do well and to eliminate as much of what they don’t as possible, they really should only start exclusively in the offensive zone. Toews’s and Kampf’s line can do the defensive starts if need be, and you don’t want any of Kane, Top Cat, or Strome there either.

Right, the Predators. The headline, other than their marvelous and expected record, is that a good portion of their team is on a trainer’s table. Kyle Turris, Viktor Arvidsson, and PK Subban all will miss out tonight, and Arvidsson is a long-term casualty. It’s put a dent in their mojo, as they’ve lost three of the last four, including getting capsized at home by the Coyotes and getting trounced by the Blues. So if there was ever a time to catch the Preds, it would be now. If the Hawks were anything resembling a coherent outfit, that is.

If there’s a bone to pick with Nashville, is that they can look a touch short on scoring. With Arvidsson out, Filip Forsberg is the only player with more than eight goals in the lineup. Ryan Johansen has gone back to “Treat Boy” status, and Ryan Hartman isn’t going to continue to shoot the lights out forever. Subban was chipping in a bit from the back, points-wise at least, but he’s out now too.

Another quirk of the Preds is that their power play is just as bad as the Hawks’ somehow. It won’t get any better with Subban out, but then again there isn’t a power play that the Hawks’ kill can’t cure.

Given how the Hawks play defense, there’s no reason to think that Peter Laviolette won’t turn the Preds up to 11 and pressure them all over the ice. The Hawks simply can’t match their speed, though they played them pretty tough last year, going 2-2-0. Still, if the Hawks can find their way past what will be a furious forecheck (they can’t), they can get some rushes and chances in the open ice behind it.

Of course, waiting there is Pekka Rinne, coming off collecting his first Vezina and dead-set on getting a second. He’s your clubhouse leader, as he leads the league in GAA, SV%, even-strength SV%, and difference between his expected save-percentage and his actual. He’s simply been brilliant, so you can have a great game and still lose because you can’t pierce him. Which is great for a team like the Hawks that struggle to score.

It’s the Flames tomorrow night, who are playing some of the best hockey around. Which means if the Hawks can’t find another gear and some stability in their own end, they’d be a Top Cat miracle goal from losing seven in a row and 15 of 17. Not that 14 of 17 is that much better.

The season is on the very edge of the precipice. Maybe they should act like it on the ice…or perhaps they’ve already accepted their fate.

Game #27 Preview Suite

Preview

Spotlight

Q&A

Douchebag Du Jour

I Make A Lot Of Graphs

Lineups & How Teams Were Built

Everything Else

Well, not that JR. Not sure where we found JR Lind. He isn’t either. But he’s been our Preds guy for a long time now, which disappoints him to no end. Follow him @JRLind. 

Most points in the West, second-best goal difference, the Vezina leader…is there anything to complain about in Predators Land?
 
As Blackhawks fans know, there’s always something to complain about, no matter how sterling the season is. Obviously, the Preds are very, very good and were able to sustain success from last season with a minimum of moves (David Poile’s biggest free agency acquisition was bringing back Dan Hamhuis on the traditional This Guy Used To Play Here Contract).
The acute complaint is that the Preds are on a two-game losing streak, just the second time this season they’ve gone consecutive games without a point; largely this is a result of a bizarre inability to solve the Arizona Coyotes.
The more chronic issue is the power play (currently 30th ahead of only…uh hi!). It’d be easy to blame that on the recent spate of injuries with Viktor Arvidsson, Kyle Turris and Pernell Karl Subban all out, though it was worse when everyone was reasonably healthy.
Kevin Fiala has been in a season-long slump (he finally scored five-on-five Tuesday) in what many expected to be a big year for him after a breakout season last year. And while he was sparkling when he was playing everyday when Pekka Rinne was injured, Juuse Saros has been mediocre in a lot of his spot starts lately.
There’s always something to complain about.
Seriously, how has Pekka Rinne been able to come up with a career renaissance at 35?
 
After his surgery and then missing so much time because of the post-surgical infection, it really looked like he was on the downhill. Then goalie Yoda Mitch Korn left with Barry Trotz and the overwhelming feeling really was that it was time for Poile to go franchise goalie hunting in the ninth round again. And then we all realized there wasn’t a ninth round anymore. Fortunately, Rinne had a career year and finally won the Vezina, signed a very team friendly extension for two more years counting $5 million against the cap (somehow David Poile got the guy to take a pay cut after winning a Vezina).
So I don’t know what kind of magic he’s working. The only complaint (and this is a weird one, I recognize) is that he might be playing too well, because as a Preds fan, you’d like his regular season workload to be a little lighter so he’s tanned, rested and ready for the playoffs. Last season, he played a lot more down the stretch as the Preds pushed for the President’s Trophy and as he secured the Vezina. Ideally, he’d get a lot more rest in March and April.
If there’s one quibble, the Preds have gotten 14 goals from Filip Forsberg but no more than eight from anyone else. Is scoring something of a worry down the line? Or is the socialist method of scoring going to see them through?
Part of that is the injuries. Arvidsson, who hasn’t played since Nov. 10 and is out for a few more weeks, is the guy with eight. Then it’s a jumble of dudes – nine with between four and seven goals, led by Old Friend Ryan Hartman (who I contend should just be signed to a series of one-year deals from now until the end of time).
Arvidsson’s absence has meant a rotation on Ryan Johansen‘s wing opposite Forsberg, which has included such strange experiments as Rocco Grimaldi. The STF line of Smith-Turris-Fiala has been ho-hum outside of Turris, who is hurt. Smith is inconsistent and Fiala can’t score. But, there are worse things that having one guy who scores 40, another who scores 25 in an injury-plagued year and nine or 10 who go for 15 to 20.
How is the power play this bad with all the weaponry on it? (please don’t turn this question around on us)
 
Who knows? Nothing seems to work. Subban is hurt and Ryan Ellis has had trouble scoring (at evens and on the power play), which takes away two of the big outside weapons. With Arvidsson out, the coaches haven’t really found a consistent net-front threat (having tried Nick Bonino, among others, down low). Eventually, it’ll click, we’re told, but it’s getting close to 30 games in now and it’s still 14 some-odd percent so.

Game #27 Preview Suite

Preview

Spotlight

Q&A

Douchebag Du Jour

I Make A Lot Of Graphs

Lineups & How Teams Were Built

Everything Else

Something I like to do at the landmarks of every season. Most of these are the players that should win certain awards on analytic bases. But they probably won’t. And remember, the “quarter-pole” is when there’s a quarter of the race or season left, and you’ll hear plenty make this mistake. Including Pat Foley on Sunday night, which should never happen considering who is broadcast partner is. Anyway…

Hart Trophy – MVP: Conor McDavid or Patrice Bergeron

The problem with MVP debates in every sport in this country is that they split between “Player Of The Year” candidates, which is what the award should be, and some nebulous, indefinable “What This Player Means To His Team” connotation. And no one is going to hear the other side, and I’m one of them. As it seems to me, “most valuable” means “has the most value,” it’s simple. And you’ll never be able to define what would happen if you remove a player from a team without any doubt. Call me a lunatic, but removing the best player from any team is probably going to irreparably damage it.

Anyway, Connor McDavid is the best player in the league. So you don’t have to overthink it. Yes, a section of Avalanche fans (ones with names like “Anthrax”) are going to come running with weaponry in hand about Mikko Rantanen and Nathan MacKinnon, who should have won it last year. They have each other and Gabriel ThreeYaksAndADog. McDavid has been playing with Nugent-Hopkins and a various sculptures made of boogers.

You could also give this to Patrice Bergeron, and it will be the only time you can as he’s going to miss the next month. The Bruins have half of a roster and are still near the top of the Atlantic because Bergeron has kept their one line humming. See what happens to Brad Marchand now.

Vezina – Best Goalie: Pekka Rinne

I don’t like it any more than you, but he’s been the best goalie. He’s got the best overall SV% of any starter, the best SV% at even-strength of any starter, and the best difference between his expected save-percentage and his actual save-percentage at evens. That’s a clean sweep.

Selke – Best Defensive Forward: Jonathan Marchessault

Ah, here’s where the fun begins. Normally, the Selke goes to whatever forward scores a lot and everyone knows wins a lot of draws, or it just goes to Patrice Bergeron. And Bergeron is never a wrong choice, but we can do better this year. If you’re looking for best defensive forward, then you want someone who keeps attempts down, keeps chances down, keeps scoring down. And Marchessault, and his linemates William Karlsson and Reilly Smith, are doing that better than anyone right now.

Marchessault leads all forwards in Corsi-against per 60, shots-against per 60, and expected goals-against per 60. Karlsson and Smith aren’t far behind him, so you can claim that’s all the line’s work. But any defensive forward is going to be hard to separate from the rest of his line. Marchessault is starting 51% of his shifts in the offensive zone, which is one of the lower marks in the league among forwards who have amassed 300 minutes of even-strength time. Anze Kopitar actually starts the least amount of shifts in the offensive zone, and his metrics aren’t that far behind Marchessault’s, so if you want to make a case for him I’d listen. Actually, I won’t, because Kings fans have spent so much time spilling out their bladders about how they get no award attention that they should all be punted into the ocean.

This award never goes to a winger though, otherwise Marian Hossa would have at least one. But if hockey voting is going to catch up to the rest of the world, it should. Marchessault is your clubhouse leader.

Norris Trophy – Best D-man: Justin Faulk

Yeah, that’s fucking right. I’m gonna hand this to a guy with just eight points. Because I’m fucking crazy. TALK TO ME WHN YOU’RE ON MY BLOCK.

The Norris suffers from a lack of definition as well. It almost always goes to the blue-liner who scores the most. And then there’s a nutcase faction that wants it to be the Rod Langway Award (James Mirtle’s term), which means figuring out who the best defensive defenseman is. And we can do that, but stick with me.

So you basically have to synthesize the two. A d-man’s job is over all 200 feet of the ice these days, so they have to be able to do both. And Faulk is doing it better than anyone.

Faulk has the league’s best Corsi-percentage and expected-goals percentage. He has the lowest Corsi, shots, and expected goals against per 60. While he plays on a possession monster of a team, he’s still well above the team-rate in all of this.

The knock is going to be the eight points. Fine. Faulk is shooting 1.7%, and he’s a career 6% shooter. That goals-total is going to shoot up. Faulk’s major problem is that his team is only shooting 6.8% while he’s on the ice, and given the lack of front-line scoring on the Canes, that might not improve that much to vault his assist totals to where anyone will notice him for this award.

But that’s out of Faulk’s hands. The things he can control, he’s dominated. And if we’re forward thinking and living in a world where Jacob deGrom wins a Cy Young with 10 wins and everyone is like, “Well of course he did because he was the best pitcher and the Mets are a Soviet era cartoon,” then we can do better with hockey’s awards.

 

Everything Else

It was all lined up for the Preds last year. Coming off their first Final appearance, and after a big trade that supposedly landed them the #2 center they’ve always needed (even though they don’t really have a #1), and a career-season out of Pekka Rinne at 35, this was their moment.

And they fluffed their lines.

They ran into a team that did what they did but better. They ran into a team with four genuine centers and two that could claim to be #1s. Rinne looked his age. Sure, it took to a Game 7, but the Preds only got to that by having to revert from their style and basically trap the Jets. It could only work for so long, because Pekka Rinne for his whole career save one playoff run has been just good enough to get you beat. And so it proved.

Oh, and the summer had yet another Predator proving to be nothing more than a shitbag, which of course they’ll welcome back with open arms because that’s what they do in Music City. AW HERE IN THE SOUTH WE THINK HITTIN’ YOUR WOMAN IS A SIGN OF LOVE. YOU YANKS JUST WOULDN’T UNDERSTAND WITH YOUR FANCY COMPASSION.

Anyway, the Preds are just going to roll it back, with essentially the same team and Rinne another year older. Funny thing though, the Jets haven’t gone anywhere, the Blues suddenly look a little spiky, and the Sharks await whoever survives this cage match. The Preds very well may have missed their boat.

2017-2018: 53-18-11 117 points  267 GF 211 GA  51.5 CF% 50.9 xGF% 8.1 SH% .935 SV%

Goalies: This could be the start of something big. And by “big” I mean a controversy. The Preds have seemingly wanted to hand the job to Juuse Saros for a while now. But they watched Rinne have a renaissance starting in the ’17 playoffs and all through last season. They can’t exactly just dislodge him due to policy.

And yet he’s turning 36 in a month. He has the Game 7 full-body dry heave during the Preds’ best chance for a Cup hanging over him. It won’t take much for their to be a whiff of a switch. They nearly did it two seasons ago before Rinne discovered Ponce De Leon’s secret.

Which in one sense is great for the Preds. Saros has been excellent whenever called upon, even though he’s small and small goalies really struggle in today’s league. If Rinne stumbles, their season won’t be torpedoed.

On the other hand, you’re talking about an organizational legend, the longest-tenured Pred by some distance, and a fan favorite. A team leader, and there’s no telling what kind of effect turning things over to Saros could have. This seems to be a team that has cohesion, but you’ve seen it rip teams apart before. It’s one fissure everyone has to keep an eye on.

Most likely, Rinne is just good enough during the season to keep these questions at bay. But in the spring if something should go haywire, it’ll take quite the tap-dance for Peter Laviolette to negotiate.

Defense: Well, they had the best defense in the league, so no reason to not return with it. Or they did until the Sharks traded for Erik Karlsson. But this is still the strength of the team. They added Dan Hamhuis again to fill out the third pairing, and even though he’s a million years old now he can probably take 12-15 minutes a night and do it well. It’s still the top four that’s the envy of most of the league.

It’s actually only middling defensively, as they give up an average amount of attempts and chances. But with Ellis, Josi, Subban, and Ekholm, they create far more than they surrender. You can’t find a team that has more players that get the team up the ice from the back themselves. Ellis is here for the full run this time, which will help them stay at the top of the division. Sure, they need some bailing out from their goalie at times, but they also keep the Preds on the right side of the ice enough.

Forwards: We’re the only ones who think this, and no matter how much we shout it from the rooftops no one seems to listen. When Ryan Johansen is not playing for a contract, he’s playing for a lava cake. As I said in the Preds’ eulogy, he had the same amount of points as Jonathan Toews last year and everyone tells me Toews is clinically dead. Mark Scheifele kicked his ass up and down the ice in that series last year, mostly because RyJo was still digesting the family size bag of M&Ms he ate at intermission. There’s no reason to think that won’t continue.

The Preds backed that up by acquiring Kyle Turris, whom reports suggest did play in last year’s playoffs. I’m not sure where there’s evidence of that. Maybe I need decoder glasses for it or something.

Turris and Johansen will do enough in the regular season to make you think the Preds are strong down the middle. And then they’ll run up against the Jets or Sharks or Blues, who actually have real center-depth, and the Preds will have a real damn problem.

Other than that, it’s still the same crop of quick forwards who never stop working and basically run most teams out of the building most nights. They’re probably looking for more from Kevin Fiala this term, who had something of a breakout with 23 goals last year. If they get it they’re more than fine. If they don’t, they’re just a touch short on scoring.

Outlook: Here’s another thing to watch with the Preds this year. Lavvy is almost certainly past his sell-by date. He wore out his act in Carolina and Philly well before this, and his intense ways can grind on players. If things go just a little sideways early in the season, they could pull the rip-chord on him. The goalie situation won’t help.

But other than those two maybes, there’s a lot more certainties with Nashville. One of the best blue lines in the league. Two good goalies. Maybe not the forward corps most people think, but certainly one good enough to cash in on the puck-movers they have at the back. They’ll be at the top of the division and conference again.

But there’s also no reason to think that an encounter with Winnipeg will go that much differently. If they survive that, there’s still San Jose, who won’t be nearly as tested in the Pacific, likely. It looks like it’ll be too much for Treat Boy and the gang to overcome.

 

Everything Else

You can’t run from who you are.

That’s the lesson for the Predators this spring. They told themselves a lot of things. They did a lot of things above their head the past two seasons. But eventually, the truth always comes back. And the Predators go home before any baubles are handed out, other than the Presidents’ Trophy which will hang around their neck like a boulder. And these days we know that trinket gets won by basic randomness of four or five points over the regular season. But it’ll make a fine banner for the yellow-clad, riddlin’, diddlin’, country fiddlin’ mob to make yet another chant about that involves the word “suck” eight times.

Pekka Rinne came into last spring as a Playoff Fleury – Finnish Model. He miracled three rounds, before turning into pop-rocks-in-soda in the Final. Patric Hornqvist is probably still laughing about that clinching goal he scored from the urinal. That was a warning shot. The Predators did not heed it. He put on a Vezina campaign, which was espionage-worthy cover for what was to come. But deep down you knew this was always there. Has any Vezina winner ever been pulled three times in a series? One has now! Don’t worry, at this time next year Preds fans will be convinced that Rinne will have something new figured out at 36.

But it goes deeper than Rinne of course. Let me present two season stat-lines for you:

79 games, 15 goals, 39 assists, 54 points, +1.24 CF% rel, -0.21 xGF% rel

74 games, 20 goals, 32 assists, 52 points, +4.79 CF% rel, +4.19 xGF% rel

One of those lines is Ryan Johansen’s, who I’m told is part of the new crop of young centers taking over the league and is signed for the next eight years. One is Jonathan Toews’s, who I’m told is clinically dead and his bloated carcass should be served to the lion house at Lincoln Park Zoo as food. By the way, Toews is the second one, the better one. Johansen did manage eight points in this series, which is nice. Mark Scheifele managed seven goals on Nashville ice alone. In case you were curious, Preds fans, that’s what a #1 center looks like. But you aren’t curious. Most people wanna know stuff, Predators fans, but you ain’t even suspicious.

It keeps going. Peter Laviolette basically coached this in the same fashion as an air raid siren. Kevin Fiala went from scoring an OT winner to getting scratched for the fat dude from Bloodsport. Lavvy’s team couldn’t do anything when they weren’t parking a bus in the neutral zone, and now you can look forward to this team quitting on him in November and being out of a job by 2019. You can set your watch to it. Oh and I think the Preds just took another dumb, offensive zone penalty. PK Subban at even-strength showed that “slower” and “roasted” isn’t just on the sign at Jack’s across the street. Hey PK, you were supposed to replace Shea Weber, not emulate him! Kyle Turris apparently played in this series. Much like his entire career, did you know he did? No, no you did not. Turris’s favorite food is a saltine in water. Good thing he’s signed forever to be a myth when it counts.

Will it save us from the holier-than-thou attitude Preds fans and hockey media bestow upon this franchise, only discovering it existed last year? No, probably not. We get it all the time here in Chicago about how the Preds are run “the right way.”

Here’s a phrase for you: Re-signed Mike Ribeiro. Shove your own fist down your throat until you can pop your own belly button out.

This was a team that celebrated welcoming back Mike Fisher, who then went on to be just about the worst forward in the league. He can go away forever now to plan his conversion therapy camp, a lifelong dream I’m sure. Maybe while they’re at it they can figure out what it is Carrie Underwood does for a living. “Carrie Underwood” is just another phrase for “Juliana Zobrist.” Nashville: Give us your talentless, your blonde, your utterly desperate to be relevant. I’m sure Underwood pushed to have one of her songs played whenever Fisher scored. Ha, just kidding, Mike Fisher never scored a goal.

They try to tell you Nashville is the cool place to be now, though how you do that by playing Black Keys after your goals is a real wonder. Just because Jack White chose to live there over Detroit is not something you fly a flag for. “We’re Not Detroit” was the tag line of a spoof video promoting Cleveland, remember. This is still Shit-Kicker-Burgh. They had the CMA awards not long ago. Or was it the NRA convention? Can you tell the difference? I couldn’t!

So now Cellblock and The Yellow Pickup go back home from the summer, rehearsing all those chants that have the same five words. Congratulations Preds fans, your lifted chants make you a run-of-the-mill MLS atmosphere. You must be so proud. Come to think of, Mike Fisher would be a the definition of a big MLS signing, given he’s 93 years old.

The Preds are pretty much jammed into bringing the exact same team back next year, when Rinne will be a year older and mentally broken, Lavvy will be fired, and David Poile can still make a deal to ruin it all. Maybe he can bring Paul Gaustad back. The Jets aren’t going anywhere, either. The Avs, who came a lot closer to pantsing the Preds in the first round than they had any right to, will be better. Corey Crawford likely won’t be hurt. The Stars might actually listen to a coach (yeah, right). It’s not getting any easier for them, and it certainly won’t if Johansen and Subban keep their Chips Ahoy! eating contest going before every game.

So long, Predators. Keep on keepin’ the red out. Maybe you can do a chant about that. We know you won’t have one about winning anything anyone remembers.

 

 

Everything Else

 vs. 

SCHEDULE: Game 1 Friday, Game 2 Sunday, Game 3 Tuesday, Game 4 May 4th

While Boston-Tampa will take most of the attention by merely being on the East Coast and everything Boston must be covered at all times otherwise Bill Simmons urinates on most of LA, this is the series that will hold the most entertainment value. These are certainly the two best teams in the West, and two of the four best in the NHL. Both are simply stacked at forward so goals should be prevalent. This one is going to be a coke-binge and catch as much as you can.

Goalies: Connor Hellebuyck didn’t really have to do much in the first round than maintain requisite oxygen intake in the first round, because the Minnesota Wild were barely there. But that’s probably a perfect way to wet your feet into playoff hockey, and he’s going to have to be much better this series. It did not go well for Hellebuyck in the regular season against the Preds, as he gave up 19 goals in five starts against them. That doesn’t really matter here, but you’d have to be the most cockeyed, Jets optimist with a fair amount of glue to huff to think that Hellebuyck is going to completely stonewall the Preds. How he reacts to his first playoff adversity is anyone’s guess.

It would be totally on course for the Pekka Rinne Ride to be pretty mediocre last regular season to a playoff marvel and then switch it this year to a Vezina-worthy season this year to turning into a Jalopi in the playoffs this year. He was very not good against the Avalanche, and they only have one line, which is daunting considering the Jets have four. Maybe he was playing down to the competition, maybe the whole team was. But a .909 against the Jets is going to see the Preds go home and probably rather quickly. He’s going to have to be better.

Defense: Again, it’s hard to learn much from the first round about the Jets’ defense when they were playing a bubble hockey opponent. The Jets look like they’ll get a boost back here with Toby Enstrom returning for this series, and he’ll be the one who holds the leash on Dustin Byfuglien. Trouba and Morrissey were excellent against the Wild, and punting Tyler Myers down to a third-pairing bum-slayer role is exactly what he was cut out for. You worry about what the Preds might do when Byfuglien goes out walkin’ after midnight searching for a McGriddle, but the rest of this outfit is pretty solid.

What it isn’t is as dynamic as the Preds’ blue line, though maybe as deep. They conspired to give up a ton of chances to the Avalanche, figuring they’d win a track meet with their depth. That’s what this blue line does, with Subban, Ellis, Josi, and Ekholm all willing and able to get up and down the entire surface. They know no other way, but leaving gaps against this Jets team is a different story than doing so against the Avs. Still, overall, possession-wise, the Preds kicked around Colorado, especially the pairing of Subban and Ekholm. Rougher ride here.

Forwards: The Jets depth is truly scary, and just about everyone chipped in during the first round. What we’re most looking forward to is if either coach settles for fighting fire with fire and has Scheifele match up with Johansen, because we’re fairly sure he’ll inhale Treat Boy. Johansen won’t find much more shelter with either Little or Stastny either. The Jets didn’t lose a step when Ehlers had to miss a game, but he’ll be back for Game 1. The best forward grouping in the league.

The Predators are hardly thin, but don’t boast quite the weapons on their bottom-six as the Jets do. And Forsberg isn’t going to get to go traipsing through three guys whenever he wants like he did against the rotted scarecrows of the Avalanche. If the Jets keep the top line of the Preds somewhat quiet, you then wonder if the Preds can come up with enough goals to run with them. Turris didn’t really do anything against the Avs, and this is much deeper water here and you feel like he comes out barely even or worse against either Little or Stastny. And Mike Fisher is not keeping up with this crew.

Prediction: Been waiting for this one for a while. The Preds have become everyone’s darling while ignoring what their flaws are. It’s a great blue line, but the Jets advantage at forward is just a touch bigger than the one the Preds have on defense. The goalies could be a wash, though you could see either melting down. With how many goals they’re likely to share, just about anything could happen. But if we expect, and Scheifele and Wheeler outplay Treat Boy and Forsberg, the Jets take this. But it’s going to be a ton of fun getting there. Jets in 7. 

Everything Else

I don’t know how the NHL couldn’t figure out to stagger the start of the playoffs, but then again it never does. Sure, I don’t know what the building conflicts are for each city, though there seem to be only a handful that are housing both NBA and NHL playoffs teams. Toronto, Boston, DC, Philly are the only four. But because of whatever, we had five games to deal with last night and only three the night before. And like the NHL playoffs always seems to do, some wonderful play and high drama is being overshadowed by the height of dumbassery and useless vengeance/dick-measuring that this time of year tends to descend into. And then the Leafs lose. Let’s go around:

Leafs 1 – Bruins 5 (BOS leads 1-0)

It’s never a good sign when someone on your team decides he’s going to out-Brad Marchand Brad Marchand. But step to the front of the line of imbeciles, Nazem Kadri! I know being a shithead has always been a part of Kadri’s game too, but when you’re already down and basically getting thwacked, it just makes you look even more like you emerged from some swamp somewhere and can’t count to four, which Kadri assuredly can’t. And the best part is Kadri had been penalized for a dumbass boarding call just minutes before he decided to reenact Asuka’s hip attack on Tommy Wingels’s head against the boards. That’s good coaching, Mike Babcock! What leadership!

If the league is serious about getting this bullshit out of the game, and it never will attain any sort of status until it does, Kadri should be tossed for the rest of the series. That’s a deliberate attempt to injure an opponent. There can’t be a bigger crime on the ice. Whereas if I squint and could see where Drew Doughty’s hit was simply poor aim or poorly executed but an actual attempt at a “hockey play,” this was simply assault.

Anyway, the Leafs blue line sucks deep pond scum and the Bruins are going to treat it like a lit up runway all series. And then we won’t have to listen to Leafs fans anymore and quite frankly I’m all for it. Oh, the Leafs firepower will probably spasm a win at home, maybe even two, but this won’t be as close as it looks when it ends.

Devils 2 – Lightning 5 (TB Diddlers leads 1-0)

Feels like this game went on in the dark. I still have no idea what the Devils are doing here other than Taylor Hall, and he did his best to drag them to a startling Game 1 win. But the Bolts are simply too much. They get you from so many places. Fast forward us to TB-Boston already. The rest of this is just a charcuterie plate.

Jackets 4 – Capitals 3 OT (CBJ leads 1-0)

Not much was expected of the Caps this time around, so you really have to hand it to them that they stuck to the script of throwing up all over themselves anyway. They even let Thomas Vanek score a playoff goal, which is a real trick. Three third period penalties is a stroke of genius, including Tom “No Seriously He’s A Good Player And Not A Detriment To The Team/Society” Wilson going full Battle Of Troy for a charging call that let Vanek tie the game. Watching Panarin come up with that to win the game didn’t exactly feel good, but then again I don’t remember him doing that at any point in the playoffs with the Hawks either. I still don’t know what the Jackets have outside of him and their top pairing, as Bob wasn’t particularly great last night, but if all you have to do is stand still while the Caps fall over, the Jackets are more than capable of that.

Avalanche 2 – Predators 5 (NSH leads 1-0)

As we kind of said in the preview, Nathan MacKinnon is going to do everything he can to make this a series. But given how limited the rest of the team was before Erik Johnson’s and Semyon Varlamov’s injury, there’s only so much he can do. Because as anyone with two eyes that aren’t Canadian or draped in yellow thought would happen, he ate Doughboy Johansen’s lunch and then spit it back at him. When he was out there against RyJo Sen, MacKinnon had a 74 Corsi % and an 85% scoring chance percentage. Laviolette quickly had to change gears and throw Bonino at MacKinnon, which was much better. But the Preds just have too many weapons for Colorado, which  you saw. And Rinne was excellent. But I have a feeling the Avs are going to at least lay down a blue print that Mark Scheifele will be very interested in. Oh, and Johansen should be suspended too for his charge, the only thing he did all night, but won’t be because the Preds have become the NHL’s little precious.

Sharks 3 – Ducks 0 (SJ leads 1-0)

There was a time when you’d take real joy in this. But now the Ducks aren’t even interesting. I’m not sure I knew they pipped the Sharks for home ice because A) it won’t matter and B) most of the time I’ve forgotten they exist. They sure played like it last night, getting skulled in the 2nd period when all the scoring happened, leaving the Sharks to do the beach chair act in the 3rd. Oh look, Ryan Getzlaf had one shot on goal. Not like him to just meander around the outside in the playoffs or anything. Ryan Johansen must have so many Getzlaf posters on his wall. The Sharks probably don’t even need Joe Thornton for this one.

Everything Else

 vs. 

SCHEDULE: Game 1 Thursday, Game 2 Saturday, Game 3 Monday, Game 4 April 18th

There’s been so much hype and yapping coming out of Nashville that they’ve gone from a team and fanbase I generally had no problem to one I’d be happy to see eat it and as soon as possible. Sadly, a one-man team is almost certainly not going to be able to pull off the job, and that’ll give us the Jets-Predators series we all want to watch anyway. Still, it could get trickier than it needs to be for the Preds.

Goalies: The Avs are going to have to resort to their backup, though they have one of the better backups in the league. Semyon Varlamov hurt a tentacle and is done for the year, so it’ll be up to Jonathan Bernier. Bernier was about league average this year, which for your #2 is exactly what you’d want. Since taking over the past few games he’s barely been ok, though he shut down the Blues enough in the last game of the season. Still, he wasn’t very good against the Sharks, Ducks, or Kings, three playoff teams. And the Avs really needed those wins. So that’s a problem.

The Predators have no such problems. Thanks to Vasilevskiy’s fall-off this year, there’s not much doubt that Pekka Rinne is going to win the Vezina this year. There’s no way around a .927 this year, and that’s what Rinne put up. Rinne had been an underwhelming playoff performer until last season, where he put up a .930. Most goalies don’t figure out something at 35. Clearly Rinne has. This matchup alone is probably enough for the Preds to get through, and easily .

Defense: Let’s face it, the Avs roll into the playoffs with probably the worst blue line of any playoff team. Patrik Nemeth and Deputy Samuel Girard are on the top pairing. Tyson Barrie is about the only experience they have at anything with plodding Nikita Zadorov. It’s a real issue. And considering the speed the Preds have, they’re going to get buried. Which means Bernier is going to have to bail them out, and he’s not really equipped to do that.

The Preds blue line… you don’t need me to tell you. It’s the best of the teams left. There are at least three top pairing guys here, and you could make a case for Ekholm if you want. And if they keep Alexei Emelin on the third pairing where he belongs, they will have these four guys on the ice for 45-50 minutes of each game. That’s enough.

Forwards: The only thing you can say for the Avs is that they’ll have the best player in this series. Nathan MacKinnon is your Hart Trophy winner, unless every voter had an embolism while voting (which they did). The Avs only hope is he goes nuclear, and even that might not be enough. Past his line, there’s just nothing. Tyson Jost and Alex Kerfoot have nice futures ahead of them but they’ve got a long way to go. Carl Soderberg do anything for you?

Meanwhile, the Preds are deep and fast. Even if Ryan Johansen is a dough-filled dog now that he got paid (and he is), and even if MacKinnon eats him alive and spits him back out to eat him again (he will), the Avs aren’t going to have an answer for Kyle Turris’s line or Nick Bonino as a #3, which he won the past two Cups as. Johansen might be a problem in future rounds, but it really won’t matter here.

Prediction: You just can’t find a path for the Avs, other than HOCKEY. MacKinnon could steal them a game, maybe even two, but you wouldn’t count on it given all the Preds have. Let’s get to the main event here. Preds in 5. 

Everything Else

 vs. 

RECORDS: Hawks 23-19-7   Predators 29-11-7

PUCK DROP: 7pm

TV: NBCSN Nationally, NBSCN Chicago locally

MANY MORE OF THEM LIVE NEXT DOOR: On The Forecheck

When you biff what should be the easier part of your schedule, that means you have to get it done against the harder part of the schedule. But hey, why not go for degree of difficulty when you’ve got nothing else to lose? The Hawks begin a pretty tricky stretch of the campaign tonight, with their post-All Star break slate taking them to the West’s best team (yes they are, fuck off Vegas) before heading back out West which didn’t go so well last time. And if the Hawks have any designs on making something of this season, they don’t get any mulligans anymore.

And this is probably not the time to be catching the Predators, even if this comes one game early for Filip Forsberg’s return (not that he regularly torches the Hawks or anything). They’ve won seven of the last eight, and the only loss in that time was losing a game of pitch and toss to the Lightning. So yeah, they haven’t been beaten in regulation since January 2nd. They just got done thwacking the Devils in New Jersey before the break when they barely cared. If you’re looking for a silver lining, and you’ll have to dig, these wins haven’t exactly come against world beaters. The Yotes twice, the Kings, the Oilers, and the Panthers are the trophies on the wall for the month of January. Fuck, even the Hawks beat the Oilers twice.

While the Preds only sit one point back of the Jets and have three games in hand on them and are thus poised to show them a clean pair of heels right quick, there are cracks in the foundation underneath this team. While usually a staple of Peter Laviolette team, this team metrically is not very impressive. They’re exactly a dead-even possession team at 50 CF%, and they actually give up way better chances than they create with a pretty paltry 47.7 xGF% as a team. If you go by scoring chance and high-danger scoring chance percentages, they’re in the bottom third of the league in those as well.

Some of this can be attributed to Ryan Ellis only having played the last couple weeks, but that can’t explain it all. As good as Ellis is in both ends of the ice, one player is not making this up or at fault. The Preds don’t create as many chances per game as you’d assume they do given their speed and depth. Pekka Rinne has had to pull their ass out of a sling pretty often, and when he hasn’t Juuse Saros mostly has. That’s who the Hawks will get tonight as Rinne is preserved for a couple more days after the break.

The Preds lack of punch could be a matter of just pacing until the spring. It could be that Ryan Johansen has looked like the over-fed pile of earlobes that he did at times in Ohio and not the dynamo who’d eat your heart last spring. Totally not a coincidence that he signed a new contract that pays him $8 mildo until the sun swallows us all this summer, then.

The Preds have been picked up by their depth though, with Fiala, Smith, and Jarnkrok all scoring more than 10 goals off the top line. And as they do, they pour goals and points in from the back end, with PK Subban leading them in scoring and Josi and Ekholm both having more than 20 points as well. The return of Ellis only exacerbates this, and though Josi and Ellis are playing together at the moment Lavvy always has the option of splitting them up and having scoring threats on all three pairings. They’re about the only team in the league that can threaten that.

For the Hawks, there don’t appear to be any changes from last Thursday’s demolition of the Red Wings, and nor should there be. We want to see Top Cat get more chances to play with actual talent, and if anyone is going to wake up Brandon Saad it’s Patrick Kane. The third line is still something of a jumble but the 4th line is definitely more interesting as a speedy Pollock painting than whatever it was Wingels and Bouma did (though Wingels is still ahead of Sharp on the third line, which is fine). Anton Forsberg gets the start after being solid enough against Detroit.

This month is filled with games against teams either right around the Hawks or ahead of them, aside from Vancouver on Thursday and they didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory last time they were there. They see the Flames twice, Ducks, Stars, Wild, Kings and Sharks. This ain’t do disco, this ain’t no time for foolin’ around.

 

Game #50 Preview

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We got a lot of things wrong last spring. To be fair to us, which we ourselves never are, just about no one saw the Predators sweeping the Hawks, even if they thought they would be a real threat. And the biggest thing we didn’t see coming is Pekka Rinne throwing a .960 at the Hawks in four games.

He’s apparently still pissy about that.

Somehow, Rinne is playing the best hockey of his career at age 35. His .937 save-percentage at even strength is the highest of his career, and by four points over his 2011 and 2015 mark (at least that season he did lose control of his limbs against the Hawks in the playoffs. We had precedent, dammit!). His overall .927 mark would be the second highest of his career, only trailing the .930 of that same ’10-’11 season.

Look a little deeper, and Rinne’s numbers get even more impressive. The difference between his actual save-percentage at evens versus his expected save percentage, i.e. a rating of the chances he’s seeing, not just the amount, is far and away the best of his career. It’s 1.09 (.937 at evens vs a xSV% of .925). The next highest mark in that category in his career is .72, and that’s a massive difference.

You may want to suggest that he’s benefitting from the Preds superb blue line and the fact that the Preds have the puck all the time limiting the shots he sees. But A) this is actually the lowest expected save-percentage that Rinne has had since 2010, so the Preds’ firewagon style is exposing him more than he has been before. Second, the Preds are a middling possession team, the very definition of it at 50% in Corsi-percentage. They’re expected-goals percentage as a team is even worse at 47.7%. They give up a lot.

Which is why Rinne’s season is so impressive, though might be a little more perilous than Preds fans would like. His SV% on high-danger chances is .845, the highest of his career by 48 points. That could be a problem. It’s the third-highest mark in the league among starters, trailing Ben Bishop and Sergei Bobrovsky and just ahead of Lundqvist and Vasilevskiy. Maybe this isn’t a problem if you think Rinne is among that level of starters. He hasn’t been for years until this one, is he really rejoining that club at 35?

So what gives? JR Lind in our Q&A suggests it’s rest, and that could be part of it. Rinne is slated to only start about 60 games this year, the third-straight season he’ll be around that total. But he hasn’t missed any time due to injury, it’s just been a straight rotation as Juuse Saros has been able to shake off early-season blahs to be one of the league’s better backups. But can that explain it all?

There just isn’t much of a precedent for a goalie having a resurgence at 35. The first name you obviously think of is Tim Thomas, who won Vezinas at 34 and 36 along with a Conn Smythe at the latter. But Thomas wasn’t anywhere until his 30s. Rinne was a frontline starter in the league at 26. Lundqvist is having another excellent season at 35, but his form never really dropped. He’s just always been this. Like Rinne though, Lundqvist is having a miraculous season when it comes to high-danger chances, with a .844 SV% on them which betters anything he’s done in the past five years by a long way. Corey Crawford, though obviously a few years younger than both, was also having his best season on high-danger chances before he went to the land of wind and ghosts. Bobrovsky is putting up his second consecutive season of robbing people with the best chances.Ben Bishop is having his best season in that spot as well. What exactly is going on here?

Perhaps this is just a league-wide trend, as goalies get better and better. Perhaps due to expansion and flattening cap, teams just don’t have the amount of finishers that they once did to bury these chances, whereas teams can find one guy to stop them much more easily than five or six guys to score them. Whatever it is, Rinne is certainly riding the wave and the Preds hope it goes until June.

 

Game #50 Preview

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Spotlight

Q&A

Douchebag Du Jour

I Make A Lot Of Graphs

Lineups & How Teams Were Built