The matchup is set and on Wednesday night, it begins when the Blackhawks face the Nashville Predators in Game 1 of their first-round series.
So who has the edge? No, we don’t do overall predictions, but we will break down the various categories and see who’s got the advantage in them. Let’s proceed.
Patrick Kane was cleared on Monday, and with that the Blackhawks’ forward depth gets a tremendous boost. If he is back beginning with Game 1 – we still think that may be a bit too soon, but not our call – the Blackhawks’ puck-possession and scoring games should automatically get better. Kane had 64 points when he suffered his injury on Feb. 24. Only Jonathan Toews has more than that now (66). For all the forward talent the Blackhawks have, they've struggled to score and that hurt them down the stretch.
The Predators bolstered their lineup over the summer, adding scoring weapons like James Neal and Mike Ribeiro. Filip Forsberg had put together a nice rookie season, recording a team-high 63 points (Ribeiro is next with 62).
We’d give the Blackhawks the automatic edge here normally, even with the Predators’ additions. But since that scoring has gone by the wayside… EDGE: Even.
Between Nick Leddy’s trade in September and Trevor van Riemsdyk’s injury in November, the Blackhawks defense took some hits. The changes and injuries had coach Joel Quenneville splitting up Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, as well as Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya. Michal Rozsival has struggled, as had David Rundblad. Kimmo Timonen was acquired at the deadline. But between coming off a 10-month recovery off blood clots and missing the last three games with an upper-body injury, he has yet to make an impact.
When you think Nashville you think Shea Weber and that howitzer of a shot he has from the blue line. Opponents who have gotten in its way have the bruises to prove it. Roman Josi has been tremendous, recording 55 points and a plus-15 rating this season. Here’s another toss-up category. EDGE: Even.
Corey Crawford is having arguably his best season with the Blackhawks. Other than the rough spot he had after his off-ice ankle injury, Crawford’s been strong. He was especially key down the stretch, when he led the Blackhawks to victories despite a lack of offense. Pekka Rinne wasn’t at his best as the regular season ended but he was still damn good this season, finishing with an NHL third-best 2.18 goals-against average and an eighth-best .923 goals-against average. Why do we sense a few 2-1 games and maybe a shutout or two coming in this series? EDGE: Even.
We were all set to give this category to the Predators but their power play is actually ranked lower than the Blackhawks’ advantage (25th in the league compared to 20th). Who knew? But the Predators did score three power-play goals over their last five regular season games. The Blackhawks, meanwhile, haven’t scored a power-play goal since March 30. EDGE: Predators
The Blackhawks took a hit in this department toward the end of the season but there could have been a few reasons for that. Joakim Nordstrom, a good killer, was injured for several games. Then Jonathan Toews was pulled off it to lessen his minutes down the stretch. They finished the regular season 10th best on the kill. The Predators weren’t faring much better and were 18th in the NHL on it this season. The kill has been a strong suit for the Blackhawks the past few years. It probably will be again this postseason. EDGE: Blackhawks
Full marks to Nashville: they got a new coach (Peter Laviolette), a new system and a new attitude. The Predators got off to a fantastic start this season before a few hiccups at the end, but they sat atop the Central for quite some time before St. Louis usurped them. The Blackhawks have a wealth of experience at this time of year. They know how to deal with the ups and downs, know how to enjoy the victory for a short time and forget about the crushing overtime loss immediately. And that experience may prove to be the difference. EDGE: Blackhawks