Seven of the eight first round NHL Stanley Cup first round series are underway and tonight the Nashville Predators take the spotlight against the Blackhawks at the United Center in Chicago with a 7:30 p.m. puck drop.
The Blackhawks are a heavy favorite in the series after finishing second in the Western Conference. The Predators have not made it out of the first round in four playoff series nor have they ever won a road game in the postseason.
That being said, this year’s version of the Predators is different. This team is built for the playoffs with a focus on defense and goaltending, which is what usually wins post-season games.
The Predators were 42-19-6 in games decided by two goals or less, the most wins in the league in that category and were 28-9-6 in one goal, playoff-style games.
The Predator defense is led by Shea Weber and Ryan Suter who were thrust into the world spotlight with outstanding performances at the Olympics in Vancouver playing for Canada and the United States respectively.
Many point to Pred’s goaltender Pekka Rinne’s inexperience in the NHL playoffs. The 27 year-old Finnish net minder was 32-16-5 this year and was 9-3-1 record in March when he had four shut outs and received player of the week consideration twice.
Rinne appears confident and well prepared for the series against Chicago. “The last month was huge for us, much like the playoffs,” stated Rinne. “There were a lot of tight games, every minute, every play mattered, just like in the playoffs.”
While Rinne has yet to play his first game in the Stanley Cup playoffs, he has plenty of playoff experience. Last year he took Team Finland deep into the World Championships. In the AHL, he was in the playoffs for three seasons playing 24 games.
Rinne discussed his prior playoff experience, “This is the same type preparation as in the AHL. Obviously, I was a little younger and it was so exciting for me and it was the best thing I knew. Now, it’s the same feeling again. That was a good preparation for me and we had a good team down there and it was good experience.”
The Predators had the best month in franchise history in March and had the third best record in hockey after the Olympics going 14-6-1.
“March was a really good prelim to the playoffs,” explained Pred’s coach Barry Trotz. “We played every second night, and the games were really hard and the intensity was ramped up and now it’s going to go to another level.”
Trotz continued, “March was also a good indicator that if we play the way we can and get our relentless attitude back that we can play home and away about the same. March was a good building block and emulates the playoffs in a lot of ways.”
The Preds played about the same at home and on the road, picking up 49 of their 100 points away from the Bridgestone Arena.
While Partric Hornqvist is the Predators only 30 goal scorer, they have a balanced attack with scoring on all four lines. The Predators had nine players in double-digits in goals.
Pekka Rinne described the excitement of both players and fans, “The playoffs are something you think about your whole career. I just can’t wait. It’s going to be so exciting.”
Predators Keys To The Series
Play Sixty Minutes Every Game…
The Predators can’t afford to take any shifts off as we have seen throughout the season. The Predators need to play an intense forechecking game and limit Chicago’s chances by keeping the puck in the Blackhawk zone as much as possible.
Everyone on all four lines needs to adhere to the Preds motto of “All In” for every shift of every game. This is not the time of year for any “passengers” as Trotz likes to say.
Pekka Rinne Needs to Steal Four Games…
The backbone of the Predators play since the Olympics was the re-emergence of Pekka Rinne. When the team was alternating starts in goal, Rinne was unable to gain his rhythm in net. Now he is the key player in this series and he needs to continue the strong play that he exhibited down the stretch.
The team needs to play good defense in front of Rinne and keep the talented Hawk’s scorers away from the net to have the best chance to steal the four games needed to move on to the second round.
Scoring From All Four Lines...
When the Predators have been most effective this season, they have had a balanced attack with contributions from all four lines. There is not enough firepower on the top lines for the Preds to be successful depending on a few players for offense.
That being said, the top players do need to produce in addition to the secondary scoring. Too many times this season, the best players have not been the best players.
Play with Discipline…
The Predators special teams have been suspect but the team has been excellent in five on five play. The Preds are the best team in the NHL at staying out of the penalty box, averaging only 8.7 minutes per game. This needs to continue as undisciplined, sloppy penalties will come back to haunt quickly in this type of series.
Chicago’s excellent penalty kill will not matter as much against the Preds since they don’t depend on the power play for many points. Any goals that the Preds get on the man advantage should be considered a bonus and could lead directly to a win. While the Hawk’s power play has been in the middle of the pack during the season, there’s no reason to give them many opportunities now.
Buddy Oakes for PredsOnTheGlass