Coming off a down year where they were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round, expectations were tentative for the Blackhawks to start the year. With a roster full of players with limited experience in the league, some people were saying last year’s loss could have been something of a beginning of the end for Chicago’s pseudo-dynasty. After an uncertain start to the year, Chicago’s young guns like Ryan Hartman, Richard Panik, and Nick Schmaltz settled in alongside the familiar faces of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Artemi Panarin. Corey Crawford put together another dazzling campaign as the Hawks cruised to a Central Division championship.
Nashville made arguably the biggest move in all of hockey last summer when they swapped premier defensemen with the Montreal Canadiens. Bringing in P.K. Subban and shipping out veteran stalwart Shea Weber was a significant organizational change. Coming into the year, there were a lot of positive feelings surrounding the team, with many analysts painting Nashville as a potential dark horse team in the West. In the end, the team stumbled through the season to the second wild card spot. However, they did at times show flashes of their immense potential at different points in the year.
Chicago’s X Factor
Jonathan Toews: Toews experienced something of a down year relative to his lofty standards in 2016-17. His counting stats were down, finishing behind names such as Tyler Bozak and Paul Byron in 5v5 points. Toews also posted his second-worst relative Corsi percentage since his rookie year, at 1.55. This suggests that his struggles were not just lack of luck, as he struggled to drive play to the levels he had been for much of his career. Toews did, however, play much of the year with a rotating cast of wingers. His numbers improved, both underlying and counting, as guys like Schmaltz and Hartman became accustomed to NHL play throughout the year.
For the Blackhawks to be successful, they need Toews to get going. They cannot rely solely on the Panarin-Kane duo to drive the offense. If the latter portion of the season is any indication, the Blackhawks’ captain will be just fine.
Nashville’s X Factor
Pekka Rinne: Rinne was once consistently among the league leaders in save percentage year after year. However, Rinne has posted only one season of save percentage above .918 in the last five. He has ranged anywhere from erratic to all-world in his caliber of play. The Rinne that shows up in this series will have a big say in how effective the Predators are. If he plays like a below-average backup goaltender, the Blackhawks have a good chance to win this series in five games or less. If he puts up a few games of Vezina-level play, the Preds stand a pretty good chance of making the upset.
Chicago’s Path to Victory
First and foremost, Chicago needs Corey Crawford to continue the stellar level of play he has exhibited all season long. Jonathan Toews continuing his successful second half of the season into the playoffs is key to their success. If Duncan Keith can play an outstanding 30 minutes a night in the playoffs once again, it will go a long way to easing any concerns on the back end. Chicago GM Stan Bowman has expressed that he believes their defense is as deep as it has ever been. If Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Niklas Hjalmarrsson can step up once again in the playoffs, it bodes well for the team. Finally, the Blackhawks need their rookies and other inexperienced NHL’ers to continue playing as well as they have towards the end of the season.
Nashville’s Path to Victory
Nashville has transformed the way they have played in recent years, adding a multitude of smooth-skating, highly-skilled skaters to their roster. Under-the-radar star Filip Forsberg is the centerpiece of a relentlessly talented forward corps that also features breakout 30-goal scorer Viktor Arvidsson, one of the best shots in the game in James Neal, and a host of other talented, hard-working players. Their defense has a claim to being the best in the entire league, with an unbelievable top-four, anchored by the previously-mentioned Subban. If Rinne provides, at the very least, average goaltending, the Predators have the capability of going toe-to-toe with the Blackhawks roster. They will need their best players like Forsberg and Subban to step up and equal their counterparts in Kane and Keith. If they do, they will have a good chance of moving forward into the second round.
Who Will Win
The Blackhawks come away with the series victory in six games. What it ultimately will come down to is the fact that Pekka Rinne likely will not be able to play at the same level as Corey Crawford. Beyond that, the Chicago skaters will be able to handle Nashville’s. Players like Forsberg, Neal, and Ryan Johansen, are not quite at the level of Kane, Panarin, and Toews.
Thanks to MSZ HockeyFilms for the pump-up video.
2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Let’s Ride. Dynasty Reign.