Well, it’s time to get in up to the elbow on everything yellow that comes with the three stars of Tennessee. We’re going to name it that because there were simply no good matchups for the Hawks to find. Had they even won the division that would still mean Minnesota, otherwise known as the West’s best team since January. Or it could have meant the Jets, a team with three wins at the United Center this season and perhaps will have the hardest arena to play in anywhere in these playoffs. The Blues? Probably on paper (which doesn’t include what’s in between their ears) the most solid team out there. So yeah, no good solutions.
So while the Predators are far from anything resembling easy, and have just as good of a chance of winning this series as the Hawks do, it’s probably the one you’d choose for least painful. So let’s get to it. As the Preds are built from the net out, that’s how we’ll comb it.
Pekka Rinne – Season stats: 64 starts, 2.18 GAA, .923 SV%, .932 SV% at evens, .862 on PK
While there are going to be a lot of people trying to draw info and conclusions from the series in 2010, Rinne is only one of two pieces from the Preds remaining from that 1st round five years ago (not counting Colin Wilson). The other surprising facet of studying Rinne is that there are going to be a lot of Hawks fans terrified that he can steal this series and how will the Hawks ever beat him four out of seven times? Funny thing, Corey Crawford’s numbers are almost exactly the same, except Crow had to do it facing more shots. Crow has also won six playoff series and a Cup. Rinne has won two series, and in only one of those was he anything close to impressive. So while he is a very good goalie and at times great, Preds fans should be just as uneasy as facing Crow as we are of Rinne.
The most clear thing about Rinne is you can’t shoot at his glove. It’s probably the best one in the league, to the point where even going to the blocker-side ends up with him catching it backhanded, such is his trust in his trapper. Sure, clear looks from the slot you can try it, but anything way out is going to get snapped up.
When Rinne gets in trouble, as with a lot of goalies now, is he can get rebound-happy if you go for the pads. If he’s off his game slightly, he will be kicking out all kinds of pucks to the middle of the ice (you may remember this from such episodes as Patrick Kane’s equalizer in Game 5). That’s going to be the play here and the hope is that the Hawks can fight through the very deep Preds’ defense to get to them. Secondly, while he’s better than he was Rinne still doesn’t not handle the puck well, and the Hawks should make him do so on dump-in as much as they can. The Preds’ defense is mobile enough to get back there, get it off of him, and make a play quick enough before most forechecks close in, but the Hawks should be able to make it a real test for them in this series. And it may come down to one or two turnovers in the defensive zone that decides this mess.
Top Pair: Shea Weber – 15G-30A-45P, +15, 50.9% score-adjusted Corsi, 0.053 Quality of Competition, 45.7% Offensive Zone Starts
Roman Josi – 15G-40A-55P, +15, 50.6% score-adjusted Corsi, 0.050 QofC, 45.3% Offensive Zone Starts
Did you know that Josi had more points than Weber? You probably didn’t. That’s the player he’s become.
You get the feeling that a portion of Weber’s Norris candidacy this year, and in the past, is kind of built on a past rep. Because while these two are very good d-men and take on the toughest assignments for Nashville, they don’t do as well against them as other premier d-men in the league. Doughty carried the play more. So did Niklas Hjalmarsson actually, though his competition wasn’t quite as tough. Letang did as well, though with better zone starts. So these guys might not be quite in the cut of best top pairings around. They are very effective when they do get the puck up the ice, it’s just not as often as others.
That said, they’re still a challenge. Weber in playoff mode is going to be one of the more ornery bastards around, and will get first “crack” at testing Patrick Kane (see what I did there?) He’s also got that doomsday gun from the point at evens and on the power play, and that’s the first weapon you have to cut off on the kill. Josi is really mobile and a fantastic passer, and if given time he will snap the Preds up the ice with just one look. He has to be under pressure.
And yet you feel if faced with Toews and Hossa all series (or whoever Toews ends up with, because we know Q could try anything) you can get at these guys for the goal or two that will decide this series. They don’t get up the ice as much as you think, and if you consistently let the Hawks in your own zone, eventually they’re going to make you pay (current evidence not withstanding). It may not decide this series, but it’s a factor.
2nd Pair: Seth Jones – 8G-19A-27P +3, 54.0% score-adjusted Corsi, -0.044 QofC, 55.7% Offensive Zone Starts
Matthias Ekholm – 7G-11A-18P +12, 56.6% score-adjusted Corsi, -0.010 QofC, 56% Offensive Zone Star
Jones has not yet become the complete monster B.O.C would write songs about yet, but don’t you worry, he will. There might not be a better skater on the blue line anywhere than Jones, certainly not at this size. However, this is his first playoff experience and even though the top pairing will take Toews’s line, Jones will still be faced with Saad, or Sharp, or playoff-Bickell on his side and that shouldn’t be an easy introduction to the postseason. He still gets a little shotgun-happy and can get caught out of position. There’s a snarl within him that hasn’t been harvested yet, and you wonder if under constant pressure in this series which way it will go. This is a big test for him.
Jones played most of the season with Anton Volchenkov, but with the acquisition of Cody Franson and the emergence of Ekholm, it’s the Swede who has taken over. Much more mobile than Volchenkov and offensively inclined, he’s just a better fit for Laviolette’s go-go ways. Not small either at 6-4, and he doesn’t shrink from physical play either. Still, Lavvy might be a little worried about rolling out a second pairing with no playoff experience at all. If Volchenkov slots in, his inability to move these days will probably make you smile.
3rd Pairing: Ryan Ellis – 9G-18A-27P +8, 56.0% score-adjusted Corsi, -0.000 QofC, 56.3% Offensive Zone Starts
Cody Franson – 7G-29A-36P -7, 56.2% score-adjusted Corsi, +0.003 QofC, 44.6% Offensive Zone Starts
This is the problem. Franson’s corsi is for his time in Music City only, and he and Ellis really combined well once he came over. Ellis is probably the best possession driver the Predators have, and with Weber and Josi mine-sweeping the tough opponents he has basically run roughshod over the weaker competition. The Hawks have to keep him pinned down in his own zone because Ellis is quite small and keeping him playing defense is going to lead to problems for the Preds. But let him get up the ice and suddenly the Preds just might win the bottom six battle, and that’s an issue as usually in the playoffs the top lines are playing each other to a standstill (though I really wonder if that will be the case here, but McClure will cover that tomorrow).
This is the deepest defense in the West, as all six of the Preds’ blue line are good in both ends and are mobile. They can play at the pace the Hawks want to play at without blinking, which is why every game between these two was so close. What we wouldn’t give for a third pairing that looked anything like Ellis and Franson. Still, it’s light on experience and the top pairing is not infallible. But the challenge is obvious.