Why Blackhawks will have their hands full with Predators

Why Blackhawks will have their hands full with Predators

The Blackhawks are a shoe-in favorite to come out of the Western Conference, and even win another Stanley Cup.

That's what happens when you've climbed to the top of the mountain three times in the last seven years, and have superstars like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith leading the charge on the ice and Hall of Fame coach Joel Quenneville behind the bench.

But Chicago will have its hands full in the first round against the Nashville Predators for a variety of reasons.

Let's start with the numbers.

The Predators own the best even-strength possession numbers out of all eight playoff teams in the West, controlling 51.4 percent of the shot attempts — also known as Corsi For percentage. It's the third straight season they've finish among the top-7 overall in that category. (The Blackhawks finished 12th overall this year with a 50.4 percentage).

Now, if you trim the category down to even strength within a one-goal game to get a feel for how teams play in a tight matchup, the Predators — and Blackhawks — hover near the middle of the pack. But they're consistent in this area:

— When the Predators are leading, they rank No. 7 in the league with a 46.7 Corsi For percentage.

— When the Predators are trailing, they rank No. 3 in the league with a 58.5 Corsi For percentage.

For comparison:

— When the Blackhawks are leading, they rank No. 17 in the league with a 44.7 Corsi For percentage.

— When the Blackhawks are trailing, they rank No. 5 in the league with a 58.2 Corsi For percentage.

The Predators don't play any differently when they're ahead or behind. They stay aggressive — unlike the Blackhawks who tend to take their foot off the gas when jumping in front — and that's a key ingredient in the playoffs, where no lead is safe. The Predators know that after they squandered a 3-0 lead in Game 1 against the Blackhawks in 2015 and fell 4-3 in overtime.

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Speaking of overtime, the Predators had a rough record in that area this year winning only four of 12 games, and also went 2-4 in the shootout. They left way too many points on the table, which is a large reason why they finished in a wild-card spot.

But as we know, 3-on-3 and shootouts don't exist in the playoffs, and that's great news for the Predators given their success at even strength, as detailed above.

Here's the most important note on why the Predators may give the Blackhawks headaches, and the differentiation between this year's team and the two they've fielded against Chicago in the past:

— In 2009-10, the Predators had nine players score 10 or more goals while the Blackhawks had 11. (Blackhawks won series in six games, went on to win Stanley Cup).

— In 2014-15, the Predators had eight players score 10 or more goals while the Blackhawks had 10. (Blackhawks won series in six games, went on to win Stanley Cup).

— This year, the Predators had 12 players finish with 10 or more goals while the Blackhawks had only seven. (A year ago the Predators and Blackhawks both had eight).

Nashville has had its best four-line rotation in a while, and it's getting key contributions on offense from the blue line group — Ryan Ellis (16 goals), Roman Josi (12) and P.K. Subban (10) — that's, oh by the way, one of the best at preventing goals, too.

It will be important for the Predators to jump on the Blackhawks early, though. They've never won a playoff series in franchise history when losing Game 1 (0-7), and the Blackhawks are 32-8 in Games 5-7 under Quenneville compared to 44-40 in Games 1-4. The Blackhawks are almost impossible to put away.

It won't be a must-win for either team, but Game 1 on Thursday will have that feel to it, especially for Nashville.

Oilers, Blackhawks' play-in round opponent, release training camp roster

Oilers, Blackhawks' play-in round opponent, release training camp roster

Sunday afternoon, the Edmonton Oilers released their Phase 3 training camp roster. Training camps begin on Monday for teams competing in the NHL's 24-team playoffs under the league's Return To Play program. 

The Blackhawks, who were at No. 12 in the Western Conference at the time of the NHL pause on March 12 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, will face the No. 5 Oilers starting Aug. 1 at Edmonton in a best-of-five qualifying round. 

Related: Oiler's Mike Green opts out of NHL's Return To Play program

Edmonton invited 33 players to attend their Return To Play camp.

Forwards Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl headline the team's roster. Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith are among the five goalies listed.

Western Conference teams will head to Edmonton's ICE District hub to prepare for the postseason tournament on July 26.

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How Blackhawks' Corey Crawford's career prepared him for Oilers series

How Blackhawks' Corey Crawford's career prepared him for Oilers series

When the Blackhawks signed Vezina trophy finalist Robin Lehner to a one-year deal last offseason, many thought that would be it for Corey Crawford. They thought Lehner would run away as the No. 1 goalie in Chicago and Crawford would disappear.

Those who still doubt Crawford, a two-time Stanley Cup champion with the Hawks, haven't watched his career very closely. 

Just as he battled to lead the Blackhawks to a Stanley Cup championship in 2015 after suffering an off-ice lower-body injury and just as he battled back to be a reliable last line of defense after multiple concussions the last couple seasons, he battled for the Hawks' net this season. 

Related: How will long layoff affect goalies in NHL's 24-team postseason?

NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes thinks it's that experience of battling and repeatedly finding his game after long layoffs from injuries that could make him a dangerous opponent for the Edmonton Oilers in the best-of-five qualifying round in the NHL's 24-team postseason kicking off Aug. 1 at Edmonton, assuming Crawford is the Hawks' starting goalie. The Blackhawks begin their training camp for the postseason on Monday.

"For somebody that hasn't gone through (injuries) before, there's so many unknowns and then maybe there's question marks and the mental elevator starts creeping up at times in ways that aren't helpful," Weekes, a former NHL goalie, told NBC Sports Chicago over the phone. "But the fact that he's had that experience in battling back from injury and coming back a long way and having extended layoffs, this isn't foreign to him. 

"So in that respect, it should be beneficial in a weird way and also give him the chance to heal up and rest up even more by way of this extended pause. I think that those things play in his favor. Those things should be playing in his favor for sure."

Related: How Blackhawks can beat Oilers with 'wealth of success' in qualifying round

This year, Crawford competed hard for the No. 1 goalie role. Leading up to the NHL pause on March 12, he had made 39 starts (16-20-3) and had a goals-against average of 2.77 with a .917 save percentage before the Hawks traded Lehner to the Vegas Golden Knights ahead of the trade deadline. With the Blackhawks, Lehner made 31 starts (16-10-5) and had a goals-against average of 3.01 and a .918 save percentage. Both tenders' numbers were hurt by an often struggling Hawks defense this year.

"I've always been a huge advocate of Crow. Crow's had an excellent run in Chicago," Weekes said. "I think the biggest challenge for him, which we all know, which isn't a state secret, (there's) just been some health challenges and he always battles back. Crow's a guy that'll battle and he's been able to come a long way back and rediscover his game, which is hard to do after layoffs, let alone multiple ones. 

"And I think this year, once he got back, talking to their goalie coach in Jimmy Waite and you got to credit Jimmy because he's put in so much work to be able to regroup Crow, numerous times. So this season specifically, when he first started, it was a little bit of a slow start as expected because he had such an extended layoff. 

Related: What's Blackhawks' key to victory over Oilers in NHL play-in series?

"But, I really think with them having Robin Lehner, it really helped because they didn't have to throw Crow right into the fire. And then Crow hit his stride and he's playing really well. ... He's played really well, coming down the stretch he looked excellent as well and that's great news for the Hawks because they're going to need him, especially in a shorter series in this play-in round against Edmonton and the fact that Crow has the experience that he does, he's played in huge games. 

"He's played in, obviously, Stanley Cup (finals). He's a winner, he's not afraid of the big stage. He's not afraid to play in a place like Chicago, he thrives on that and not to mention, internationally for Team Canada. I think where they're concerned, as far as his ability and his talent, he just looks like himself right now, which is great news for the Hawks and I know that his teammates have a lot of confidence in him so as long as he's able to... I know he's been on the ice, as long as he's healthy and feeling good they've got a good shot because he's been there before and he's done it before. 

"It's a unique opportunity for him and for his team, but he can lean on that experience of having played in big spots like the Stanley Cup Final and playoffs for years. That could be an advantage for the Hawks actually in that respect."

It's not clear who will start in net yet for the Oilers. Mikko Koskinen was 18-13-3 this year with a 2.75 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage and Mike Smith was 19-12-6 with a 2.95 goals-against average and a .902 save percentage. 

Although some of their numbers may measure up to Crawford's, neither goalie's journey can compare to his.

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