By Robert Zeglinski
Two years ago, when the Blackhawks met the Nashville Predators in the first round of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs en route to an eventual third championship in six seasons, many wondered whether that grueling, fast-paced was Chicago’s best test throughout that fateful spring.
As the Hawks relatively limped down the stretch that season with Nashville would push the team to six games in one of the more exciting series in the entire postseason. From two games that went into at least double overtime, to a Game 6 clinching classic with future Conn Smythe winner Duncan Keith cementing the Hawks’ place in the second round on the game-winning goal. Yes, the Predators were every bit a demonstrative challenge for an experienced Blackhawks core then.
Two years later, even while plagued by inconsistencies, inexperience, and growing pains, they might be better, or at least more talented. This isn’t your typical No. 1 vs. No.8 seed match-up. Nashville could again push the Blackhawks and more, or falter due to fatal flaws.
It’s going to be painstakingly agonizing for those with rooting interests in both teams: Just what everybody loves about the playoffs. The long road for Chicago is never easy.
Star winger Patrick Kane agrees about what the Predators may present to Chicago.
“It’s a tough team. It’s a tough team to play against, no doubt. I think it’s one of the tougher teams in the league.”
As a note, the Blackhawks went 4-1 against Nashville this season, with two wins each at home and on the road. The last two times they’ve met the Predators in the postseason in the first round, they also went on to win the Cup.
Let’s take a look at the tale of the tape in what could decide the potential best series of this year’s first round:
Of course, both teams have had a bit of roster churn in the past 24 months. For Nashville, it was through shrewd front office aggression to improve. For the Blackhawks, it was about managing the salary cap while also developing young players.
The most notable changes being made for the Predators since these two teams last met were the additions of first line center, Ryan Johansen, in a trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets. The other change being the headliner of this past offseason in an unprecedented blockbuster move for superstar defenseman, P.K. Subban, with the Montreal Canadiens.
When it comes to Johansen, who had 61 points this season, he’s not necessarily a true game-changer. But his presence helps spread the wealth across all four Predators forward lines. All of this being good for a team so up-and-down that still finished 11th in the NHL goal scoring with 240 total goals. Keep an eye on the dynamic Filip Forsberg.
The real driver though is Subban, who potentially gives Nashville the two best top pairs in the playoff fielding when you factor in Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm. Josi gave the Hawks real fits last time but Ellis and Ekholm have strangely struggled at times. That’ll be something to watch.
But, much like the Hawks, Nashville activates their defenseman aplenty in the offensive zone to create pressure. Subban in particular spearheads that movement and will be someone the Blackhawks will have to keep their grips on as he’s one of the very best players, let alone defenseman, in the league.
Both nevertheless, give the Predators top-flight options they didn’t have last time while also still growing their way into the lineup and becoming leaders.
For the Blackhawks, it’s obvious: the now Blue Jacket, Brandon Saad, current Hurricane, Teuvo Teravainen, and Canadien, Andrew Shaw, are all notably missing after being key contributors to the 2015 Cup team.
Last year’s version of Chicago struggled to replace the first two, but it seems after a year of development and comfort, the organization has comfortably moved on.
Obviously the biggest addition and or “replacement” for any of these former core players is objective superstar, Artemi Panarin. In just two seasons, Panarin has blazed through the NHL on a second line with the reigning Hart trophy winner, Kane, and the now-healthy Artem Anisimov, whose also filled in well as this Hawks’ team’s first true second center in, well, ever.
Panarin has 151 points over the last two years, including two 30-goal seasons, as any concerns of his game adapting from the Russian KHL, have long been alleviated.
Next to him is Anisimov as mentioned, who isn’t nearly as dynamic an offensive presence, but fits the Hawks team between Kane and Panarin well, and is easily the best second center of this era for Chicago.
Shaw meanwhile, has been more than adequately replaced by the former top touted prospect, Ryan Hartman. In his first full season up with the Blackhawks, Hartman had 19 goals and did everything that Shaw did as a boost on the bottom-six, but better.
As for Saad, well, they haven’t really replaced him. It’s hard to replicate a successful two-way star forward like him individually. But Chicago has done it with a successful platoon concerning 22-goal scorer, Richard Panik, and with the rise of other top prospect, Nick Schmaltz, who showed special instincts on the way to the postseason.
Both help franchise center and captain, Jonathan Toews, on the first line and that’s all that matters.
Blackhawks X-Factor: How will Schmaltz and Hartman adjust to the rigors of the playoffs?
If the Hawks are to win their fourth Cup in eight seasons after winning the Central Division and capturing the Western Conference regular season title, the young guns in Hartman and Schmaltz are going to have to adjust to the trials and speed of the playoffs rather quickly. They’re too important to disappear. If they play well, there might not be a better team in the field.
Predators X-Factor: What version of Pekka Rinne shows up?
The once elite regular Vezina contender has seen his play fall off with age and hip injuries being the primary detriment. Rinne has been relatively average with just .917 and .918 save percentages in the last two years, respectively. For as good of a defense as Nashville has, they’re only as good as the man in the crease, which partly explains why they’re the technical No. 8 seed – really inconsistent.
Rinne’s playoff statistics against the Blackhawks aren’t any better as Chicago has had him hover at a mean of .910 in save percentage in two series in both that fateful 2015 series and 2010, another Cup for the Hawks. They’ve simply seemingly figured him out.
If he doesn’t have an answer this time around, it could be a quick series for the home team in the Blackhawks.
The pace of play will be lightning-quick. The two teams’ budding rivalry will have another tremendous footnote. And even while this isn’t the best first round match-up for the team, I think the Blackhawks’ depth and superior top-end talent wins out in the end. Blackhawks in six.
Robert Zeglinski is a staff writer for SB Nation and managing editor at No Coast Bias. Follow Robert on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.