The Nashville Predators play host to the Chicago Blackhawks tonight at Bridgestone Arena in the first game of round one of this playoff series. Chicago will bring the considerably better team to Nashville and will be bolstered by the return of forward Patrick Kane. Kane missed the past seven weeks while he recovered from a fractured left clavicle.
Predators fans might not want to concede the “considerably better team” rhetoric but they cannot deny the team has struggled down the stretch. Nashville came out of the gate hot under new head coach Peter Laviolette and they rode that hot streak through the first part of the season. Lately, however, the team hasn’t played well at all and they have dropped the last six games.
Fortunately for the Predators, the Blackhawks have struggled too and the Preds get a boost from the return of an injured forward as well. Mike Fisher returns tonight having missed the past two games due to a lower body injury. The Blackhawks have dropped their past four games too and could be vulnerable to a hopefully improved and motivated Predators team.
There are a number of reasons for Nashville’s slump including Pekka Rinne not playing well at all. Rinne needs to play better its true but there are a number of things the team could do to help including better contribution from their back lines.
Still, there is one area that could make or make the Predators playoff chances and that is special teams play. They are mediocre at best on the power play. Scoring has long been an issue for the Preds but for one brief shining moment during this season Nashville appeared to have that one solved.
The Predators are scoring a league mediocre 25th in PP scoring at 16.2 percent. They aren’t much better at scoring overall at 8.65 percent and are ranked 19th in the league in team shooting percentage. On the flip side, Chicago isn’t much better at shooting either with 17.6 percent scoring on the PP (20th overall) and 7.92 percent in team scoring (26th overall).
Where the two teams differ dramatically is in killing off the penalty. Nashville is a mediocre 80.8 percent there (18th in the league) while Chicago was one of the league’s best ranking 10th at killing off the penalty at 83.4 percent. That’s almost three percentage points above league average. Nashville is 9th among all playoff teams in penalty kills.
With Pekka Rinne possibly hurt and clearly not playing up to admittedly high expectations, the Predators have to give him some assistance. Certainly scoring better themselves would help as Nashville has dropped far too many games after taking the lead this season. However, keeping the puck out of the net will prove vital as well.
Rinne’s save percentage right now is .923 which is certainly respectable and nothing to sneeze at. He is tied at 7th in the league in save percentage which is not too shabby either. Rinne has largely carried the Predators due to his stellar play for several years now so to place all the blame on him is unfair.
The Predators are faced with a defining moment here. Their most solid player and a big part of their success is showing his humanity and it’s time for the team to rally around him. Helping considerably would be the back lines scoring more consistently but the team must simply play better defense and help keep the puck out of the net. The Predators have given up at least one power-play goal in four of the past five games.
One final note about the game is that it will be the playoff debut of several young players including exciting young rookie Flip Forsberg whose fiery play has helped key many victories this season. Calle Jarnkrok, Mike Santorelli, Victor Bartley, Mattias Ekholm, Kevin Fiala, Seth Jones, Taylor Beck and Carter Hutton will likewise be making playoff debuts as well. These young players will face formidable opponents in two-time Stanley Cup Champions in Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Duncan Keith.
The puck drops at 7:30 p.m. The game will be televised on Fox Sports South – Tennessee with radio play by play on 102.5 The Game.