Nashville Predators

Central Casting: Can Blackhawks play the role of playoff team?

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USA TODAY

Central Casting: Can Blackhawks play the role of playoff team?

If the Blackhawks are going to end their postseason drought next season, they are going to have to jump over at least one of the five Central Division foes who qualified for this year’s postseason.

Of course, there is no guarantee the Central will get five teams in next year’s tournament, but let’s look at each club and identify teams that could take a step back next season.

Nashville

Ever since the Predators swept the Blackhawks and lost to Pittsburgh in the Stanley Cup Final, they have continued to regress each year in their attempts to hoist the Cup.

Last year, they lost to Winnipeg in Game 7 of the second round. This postseason, Dallas ousted Nashville in the first round.

The Predators appear to be at a Cup crossroads. They need to find more scoring than just the JOFA line. Do they need to move P.K. Subban to acquire scoring depth?

They also had the worst power play in the league and 36-year-old goalie Pekka Rinne had a sub-par .905 save percentage in the playoffs.

Expect a busy offseason in the Music City as the Predators look to stay in the upper tier of the Central.

Cup contender trending: Down

Winnipeg 

Did the Jets run into a team of destiny in the Blues? Or did the opening round loss highlight some areas of concern for Winnipeg?

The Jets season in many ways was the exact opposite of the Blues. Winnipeg started strong and was just average in the second half of the season.

The Jets have seven players that will become unrestricted free agents on July 1st, including Kevin Hayes. They also have six restricted free agents on their roster, which includes Patrik Laine and Jacob Trouba.

The Jets have had a rocky relationship with Trouba and are expected to trade the 25-year-old defenseman. Connor Hellebuyck’s production dropped off a bit from 2018 when he was a Vezina Trophy finalist.

The Jets have a great power play and three lines that can score. A couple of roster tweaks could help this young team take the next step.

Cup contender trending: Even

St. Louis

From last place in the entire league on Jan. 2 to being one of the final four teams standing in pursuit of Lord Stanley’s Cup.

Craig Berube pushed all the right buttons when he took over last November. The Blues commitment to defense was highlighted by finally finding what appears to be a franchise goalie in Jordan Binnington.

The Blues are strong down the middle with centers Brayden Schenn, Ryan O’Reilly and Tyler Bozak.

The Blues' key players are under contract next season. So, other than finding a new anthem to replace “Gloria” the Blues could be a major roadblock in the Blackhawks climb up the Central standings.

Cup contender trending: Up

Dallas

Another first-year coach in the Central, Jim Montgomery saw his team improve dramatically, as they fell just one goal short of reaching the Western Conference Final.

The Stars have a tremendous 1-2 punch in net with Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin.  

They have solid special teams with players like Tyler Seguin, Alex Radulov and John Klingberg putting up monster numbers.

They also saw young players like Miro Heiskanen and Roope Hintz make an impact on the scoresheet.

The Stars spent a second-round pick on Mats Zuccarello. Will the Stars have enough cap room to sign Zuccarello when he becomes a UFA this summer?

Cup contender trending: Even

Colorado

The Avalanche punched the final postseason ticket in the West and rode it all the way to Game 7 of the second round.

Luck was on the side of the Blackhawks during the draft lottery, but that wasn’t the case for Colorado. They had the best odds for the No. 1 overall pick and ended up with the fourth overall selection.

The Blackhawks won’t have to deal with Jack Hughes in an Avs sweater, but they will have to worry about blue line phenom Cale Makar for the foreseeable future.

The Avalanche had the most dangerous line in hockey for much of the season with Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen.

They are a young, fast team with a steady netminder in Philipp Grubauer. They will see Colin Wilson become a UFA on July 1.

Colorado may end up being the elite team in the Central for years to come.

Cup contender trending: Up

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Four takeaways: Blackhawks claw back but come up short in overtime loss to Predators

Four takeaways: Blackhawks claw back but come up short in overtime loss to Predators

Here are four takeaways from the Blackhawks' 4-3 overtime loss to the Nashville Predators at the United Center on Wednesday:

1. Clawing back but falling short

Despite falling behind 3-1, the Blackhawks fought back like they often have this season and forced overtime.

Jonathan Toews scored a crucial shorthanded goal with 20 seconds left in the second period, giving the Blackhawks a lift going into the third period. Artem Anisimov potted the equalizer with 2:21 left in regulation thanks to a great feed by Patrick Kane, who finished with two assists for his fifth multi-point outing in seven games.

But the Predators finished the job in overtime when Filip Forsberg, fresh off a line change, took advantage of three tired Chicago defenders to score his second of the night exactly one minute into it.

The Blackhawks have picked up at least a point in 10 of their last 14 games, and haved played well against two of the best Western Conference teams (Calgary and Nashville) and hottest Eastern Conference team (Pittsburgh) in their past three contests.

"We expect even more out of ourselves," Toews said. "We’re playing well, we’re in games. When you get to overtime, we have that feeling that we can get the two points. It’s unfortunate we haven’t gotten it done in our building. We want to get that energy and get that crowd into it and give them something. Just falling short a few times here and there, but overall our team game’s been getting better. For us, we know the expectation’s even higher. We can go for those two points every night.”

2. Falling into old trap?

For the third straight game, the Blackhawks allowed the first goal after they had scored the first one in the previous seven games. It was a good run and a much-needed one too after the Blackhawks went through a tough stretch in November where they gave up the first goal in 11 straight.

But now they have to make sure not to fall into that same trap. Colton Sissons scored first, the Blackhawks eventually responded towards the end of the first period, but the Predators answered right back eight seconds later. The Blackhawks also gave up 17 shots in the opening frame, their third-highest of the season.

Erik Gustafsson, who was on the ice for the first goal and overtime winner for Nashville, was self-critical about his performance and the role he played in those two goals against.

"For myself, I felt I was terrible today," he said. "But the team played well. I think that we can be better in our zone. But for 60 minutes I think we played well."

3. Power play stays hot

The Blackhawks power play is on an absolute roll right now. They've been near the basement of the NHL for a large portion of the first half in that department, but have quickly found themselves flirting with the middle of the pack after their recent hot stretch.

With another power play goal — by Alex DeBrincat, who extended his goal streak to three games — against the Predators, the Blackhawks are now 10-for-29 (34.5 percent) in their last 10 games with the man advantage. They were 13-for-108 (12.0 percent) in their first 36 games of the season.

It's come a long way.

"Obviously [DeBrincat's] been finishing his chances on the power play, which is nice to see," Toews said. "When we’ve got a guy that can shoot like that, a guy that can pass like [Kane], we just have a lot of good things going for our power play right now.”

4. New top line

The Blackhawks made some changes going into Wednesday's game. DeBrincat was promoted to the top line with Dominik Kahun and Toews while Brandon Saad was moved to the third line with Drake Caggiula and David Kampf.

It was time for DeBrincat to get more ice time because he deserves it. He logged 17:01 of ice time, his second-highest since Dec. 16, scored a goal on the power play and recorded a team-high seven shots on goal in the loss.

"I thought we played well," DeBrincat said. "Can definitely be better. Made a few plays, probably could have scored a few more times. There's always room for improvement."

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Four takeaways: Blackhawks turn in complete effort, wrap up homestand with win

Four takeaways: Blackhawks turn in complete effort, wrap up homestand with win

Here are four takeaways from the Blackhawks' 2-1 win over the Nashville Predators at the United Center on Sunday:

1. The Full 60

The Blackhawks have been preaching playing a full 60 minutes ever since Jeremy Colliton took over as head coach. Heck, even before then. And they turned in arguably their most complete effort under their new head coach against a Predators team that came in tied for second in the NHL with 46 points.

Even more impressive, the Blackhawks shut the door in the final 40:33 and gave up one or fewer goals for the first time since Nov. 18 in a 3-1 victory over Minnesota — a span of 15 games. Cam Ward was a big reason for that, stopping 30 of 31 shots for a save percentage of .968 to pick up his first win in almost a month.

It was a well-deserved win for the Blackhawks, who earned five out of a possible eight points during their four-game homestand.

"I thought our guys competed and worked really hard all 60 minutes," Ward said. "Defensively we didn’t give them a whole lot and it’s a credit to the guys for the way that they played. We kept it much more simple and executed and, to be quite honest, we could have had more goals if it wasn’t for [Pekka] Rinne. He made some big saves and it was tight right till the end."

2. Contributions from the back end

With Henri Jokiharju being loaned to Finland for the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship, a void opened up on the Blackhawks blue line. But with that comes opportunity for others.

Gustav Forsling, who returned after missing six games with a shoulder injury, scored his second of the season to put the Blackhawks on the board at the 15:22 mark of the second period. And 1:54 later, Erik Gustafsson made it 2-1 when he scored 17 seconds into a power play.

Despite deserving better fate in the first period, the Blackhawks stayed with it and responded with two goals and outshot the Predators 16-7 in the middle frame to hand Nashville its first loss of the season when leading after one period (10-1-0).

"We always want to score," Forsling said. "But I think the most important thing is not to get scored on and we did a good job at that too."

3. A strong start spoiled

The last time the Blackhawks clashed with the Predators, they allowed three goals in the first 4:11. It wasn't great.

Perhaps motivated by revenge, the Blackhawks were ready to play from the moment the puck dropped this time around, outshooting the Predators 12-11 and generating 13 scoring chances, according to naturalstattrick.com, in the opening frame. But the Predators spoiled their good start when Kevin Fiala scored with 32.2 seconds left.

It's the 15th straight game the Blackhawks allowed a first-period goal, although this is one they can't get too worked up about.

'"We talked about it before: we've got to be ready," Gustafsson said. "Nashville's a great team. We know they're going to come out hard. Right from the start, we battled hard, we stuck together as a team and when we [got] tired, we stuck together in front of [Ward]. It was a team win tonight."

4. Alex DeBrincat is in good company

The Blackhawks celebrated a birthday on Tuesday, with DeBrincat turning 21 years of age. It's weird to think he's only 21, but at the same time it feels like he's been around for a while now and has become part of the core. 

There are only six players in Blackhawks history who have scored more goals than him before turning 21: 
— Eddie Olczyk (65 in 228 games)
— Jeremy Roenick (58 in 146 games)
— Jonathan Toews (58 in 146 games)
— Bobby Hull (55 in 177 games)
— Denis Savard (54 in 129 games)
— Patrick Kane (53 in 181 games)

Of those seven players, DeBrincat ranks fourth in goals-per-game (.362). And the best is yet to come.

"It's a nice weapon to have in your lineup," Colliton said. "He's probably exceeded expectations that people had for him when he first came to training camp a year and a half ago. But there's no reason why he can't keep getting better."

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