The Predators have a chance to close the gap on the wild card spot today.
It’s a Saturday with a rivalry hockey game; life doesn’t get much better than that. The Nashville Predators come into this game having won five of their last six, sitting four points back of the wild card spot held by the Chicago Blackhawks and a point behind the Columbus Blue Jackets. What are the storylines, who should you be watching, and what’s the anthem of the game? All that and more below.
Nashville is on a hot streak only in name alone. The Predators are largely benefitting from Juuse Saros elevating his play to “best goalie in the NHL” levels in recent weeks, all while posting the same process that got them crushed by the better teams in the division. However, that really doesn’t matter against an inherently flawed Chicago team that the Predators have handled at weaker moments in the season. The Preds are 2-0 against the Hawks this year and clearly controlled both matchups as the superior team, even if both meetings went past the sixty minute mark (an overtime win and a shootout win).
To beat Chicago, Nashville will need to continue delivering on the things that have brought them roaring back into the playoff race: excellent goaltending, a threatening power play, and break-even or better performance by the bottom of the lineup. Against a young, shallow roster like the Blackhawks, this is a doable task. The Predators will likely need Filip Forsberg to get on the scoresheet after a recent “drought” (only two points in his last five games), but rookie Eeli Tolvanen has helped pick up the slack nicely and will look to sustain his run as the team’s top goal-scoring threat.
An interesting exploit available to the Predators when facing this team is actually found in the face-off dots. Chicago is among the worst teams in the league at winning draws, with only two lineup regulars having posted a FO% over 50 percent. Nashville excels at generating offense immediately following a face-off win, according to the data below.
Another concerning area of Chicago’s team is their power play, ranked third in the league. Nashville has the ability to exploit a weakness underlying the unit due to their above-average success rate at stymying zone entries when shorthanded, an area that Chicago tends to struggle with compared to the league average.
Overall, this is a winnable game for the Predators that gives them a chance to assert themselves as a legit contender for the fourth spot in the Central Division. Chicago will be a tougher test than other recent teams (the Red Wings), but I don’t look at the Blackhawks and see a roster that’s playoff worthy. The Hawks have been propelled by goaltending all year and recent regression has shown that; the Predators are and should look like the better team.
Chicago isn’t an unthreatening team by any stretch of the imagination, either. The Hawks possess a number of players who excel at finishing chances above their expected rate, particularly Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat. Rookies Pius Suter and Philipp Kurashev add additional scoring punch to the rest of the lineup, with likely Calder finalist Kevin Lankinen in net. Lankinen in particular has been buoying the Blackhawks to their unexpected record, even if his recent play hasn’t been fantastic.
The biggest hole in Nashville’s game (and my biggest worry coming into this matchup) is that even while he’s been drastically improved across the board, Juuse Saros still isn’t great with rebound control. The smaller Finnish goalie has been able to mask this problem with his freakish reflexes, but against a team like Chicago and specifically a player like Kurashev, that could be a problem.
Kurashev is among the very best players in the league in producing scoring chances via rebounds, and the Blackhawks obviously have the talent to make those plays find twine.
Chicago is a flawed team, but one with dangerous elements to it that could give the Predators trouble if they don’t play them effectively. Limiting play to the perimeter with disciplined defensive structure and consistently playing assignments will be crucial. Keeping the game clean will also be a key factor, with Chicago’s deadly power play always looming as a threat. Patrick Kane may be a defensive liability, but he’s still an offensive game breaker who holds rank as one of the best passers in the NHL.
Three Big Things
- Aggressive gaps are going to be helpful when dealing with Chicago. The Blackhawks don’t possess a gigantic speed advantage on the wings and lack the experience to repeatedly execute skill moves to get past defenders in a straight line if they’re closed out quickly. Keeping guys like Kurashev and Suter along the boards on entries will help slow down the pace of the game and prevent the Hawks from setting up their main method of scoring: the controlled cycle.
- Juuse Saros needs to repeat his heroics from the past week to make sure that the Predators aren’t playing with a baseball score. The Blackhawks exploit a few of his biggest weaknesses, but the young Finn has proven time and time again that he’s up to the task later in the season. It’s a chance for him to cement that reputation and get Nashville that much closer to a playoff berth.
- Eeli Tolvanen is, as always, the X-factor. The rookie sniper hasn’t done much scoring at even strength, but against a Chicago team ranked 25th in xGF% he’ll have plenty of chances to put the biscuit in the basket. Tolvanen is neck-in-neck with Oliver Wahlstrom for the rookie goal-scoring rate title (GF/60 and GF/GP) and will continue his quest to catch Kirill Kaprizov before season’s end.
It’s Chicago. This is Chicago.
Happy gameday everyone, and as always, go Preds.