Blackhawks

Blackhawks-Predators Round 1: Who has the edge?

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Blackhawks-Predators Round 1: Who has the edge?

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.

Forwards

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.

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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.

Defense

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.

Goaltending

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.

Power play

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

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Penalty kill

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

Intangibles

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

Evaluating Blackhawks options after Anton Forsberg is placed on waivers

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AP

Evaluating Blackhawks options after Anton Forsberg is placed on waivers

The Blackhawks have said all along that they don't plan on carrying three goaltenders, but wanted to do so during the three games in four days stretch just in case, with Corey Crawford coming back from a 10-month layoff because of a concussion.

After being encouraged by how Crawford has responded to his return, the Blackhawks placed goaltender Anton Forsberg on waivers Monday morning. Teams have 24 hours to put in a claim for the 25-year-old goaltender and would have to keep him on their NHL roster for 10 games and/or 30 days before he's eligible to go through the waiver process again.

His chances of getting claimed by any of the other 30 teams essentially depends on which teams believe Forsberg would be an immediate upgrade over their current backup — or starter, for that matter — or whether there's an injury to one of the team's two goaltenders that requires a placeholder, like we saw the Carolina Hurricanes do by claiming Curtis McElhinney from the Toronto Maple Leafs after Scott Darling's injury in the preseason.

If Forsberg goes unclaimed, the Blackhawks can assign him to the American Hockey League with the Rockford IceHogs. With Collin Delia and Kevin Lankinen sharing the goaltending duties in Rockford, it's possible Lankinen gets sent to the Indy Fuel in the East Coast Hockey League to get consistent starts under his belt.

A third option, one that isn't very common but we've seen in the past as recently as last October with Maple Leafs goaltender Kasimir Kaskisuo, is that Forsberg can be loaned to any AHL team while still being a part of the Blackhawks organization. This would allow the Blackhawks to keep Delia and Lankinen in Rockford while Forsberg gets his starts in the AHL, too.

Or, the Blackhawks could simply trade Forsberg to another NHL team that could stash him in the AHL, as long as he clears waivers. They did it last season with Chris DiDomenico, who cleared waivers as a member of the Ottawa Senators but was then traded to Chicago for Ville Pokka days later. Had DiDomenico been claimed by the Blackhawks, he would have had to stay on the NHL roster as noted above.

Forsberg was 10-16-4 with a 2.97 goals against average and .908 save percentage in 35 appearances last season but has not appeared in a game yet this year. He was acquired as part of the Brandon Saad package for Artemi Panarin in June 2017.

Blackhawks looking for defensive improvement from everyone, not just defensemen

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USA TODAY

Blackhawks looking for defensive improvement from everyone, not just defensemen

The Blackhawks were able to get away with their defensive lapses in the past solely because of Corey Crawford. When he went down with a concussion last December, those issues were magnified because he wasn't there to mask the flaws.

But it's reached the point where they can't rely on their goaltender to bail them out on a nightly basis, which is becoming another trend. Cam Ward allowed six goals to Tampa Bay on Sunday night, but made 49 saves — including 30 in the second period alone. He did everything he could to keep his team withing some sort of reaching distance and without his timely stops, the scoreboard could've looked much worse for the Blackhawks.

Something's got to change. 

When the Blackhawks talk about tightening things up defensively, they're not just putting it all on the defensemen. All five guys on the ice need to do their part and they're not doing it right now.

"I think we're trying to do too much and running around trying to do each other's job," Jonathan Toews said. "Sometimes we just need to simply and finish our checks and support each other."

No team has given up more even-strength high-danger chances through eight games than the Blackhawks at 110. That's 15.77 per 60 minutes. For reference, the New York Islanders finished worst in the league in that category last season and their number was at 12.96.

It didn't help that the Blackhawks spent nearly the entire second period in their own end on Sunday.

"We just couldn’t get it out of our zone, couldn’t get our stick on it, didn’t see pressure, didn’t feel pressure when we had it, were stripped," coach Joel Quenneville said. "Hence, we didn’t advance it. Kept looking like we were going up the ice and there were going to be some odd-man situations and then we’re the ones who were facing it."

That's one way to eliminate those high quality scoring chances, is getting the puck out of their own zone effectively or else it opens the door for Grade-A opportunities because of self-inflicted wounds. And it usually happens at the end of shifts when guys are tired, which often leads to goals.

"We have to learn how to play without the puck better and learn how to keep it," Quenneville said. "Whether it was our execution going up the ice, first pass poor and then we couldn’t change. A lot of things that happened yesterday were there tonight."

The Blackhawks weren't using three games in four nights as an excuse because Tampa Bay was in the same situation. It was an even playing field in that respect.

It's all about execution from everyone involved, forwards and defensemen. And the Blackhawks feel they're correctable issues.

"Of course," Toews said. "We've had some good periods this season so far. The first three, four, five games, everyone was excited and you guys are all talking to us much differently than you are right now. It's just getting back to playing that smart defensive game and playing with effort and letting our offense do the work. We know what's got to improve. It's right there in front of us."