PREDATORS (47-29-6) at BLACKHAWKS (52-22-8)
Last 10 -- Nashville 6-3-1; Chicago 6-3-1
Season series -- The Hawks took the season series from their Central foes, 4-2, including the last meeting, a 5-4 barnburner on Dec. 27 at the United Center.
Big story -- Chicago and Nashville are facing off in that rare playoff series between division rivals who may not be all that familiar with one another. All six games between the Hawks and Predators were over the first three months of the season, meaning the puck hasn't dropped between these two in 2010. With that kind of layoff, the opener could be an interesting "getting to know you" session as Chicago and Nashville begin their scrap for a berth in the conference semifinals.
Predators -- With the Predators quietly making their fifth playoff appearance in the last six seasons, the Music City is becoming as regular a part of spring as bushy beards and vague injury reports. Despite consistently making it to the postseason, Nashville has not won a playoff series in its 12-year history, but with the Hawks reputed goaltending woes, many feel the Preds could be positioned to pull off the upset. Nashville finished the season strong, with three wins in its last four games, and while Chicago might have concerns between the pipes, the Preds seem to have no need to worry -- starter Pekka Rinne has won 10 of his last 14 starts.
If there is a potential red herring in the Predators' midst, however, it might be that most of their late season wins came in overtime or the shootout. In fact, Nashville has only won once in regulation since March 22. While points are important by whatever means necessary in the regular season, the playoffs provide a far smaller margin for error. With Chicago's potent offense, the Predators may have difficult keeping the game close for 60 minutes.
Blackhawks -- After a scorching first half of the season, Chicago stumbled out of the gate following the mid-season Olympic break, going 6-7-2 in March. But April has been a much kinder month for the Hawks, who haven't lost in regulation in seven games. The offense has continued to chug along as it has all season -- the young lynchpins of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews each produced at better than a point-per-game pace during the season's final act -- but scoring has never been the main worry for this team. Chicago was plagued by goaltending concerns for much of the second half of the season, particularly after injuries to Brian Campbell and Kim Johnsson left it shorthanded on the blue line.
But April showers seem to be washing the anxiety away, as Antti Niemi has settled into the role of starter just as the postseason arrived. Niemi went 6-0-1 over the last seven games, and while one might assume his offense has bailed him out, his goals-against average is a mere 1.97 over that stretch. Chicago has been considered a likely Cup contender from wire to wire this season, with goaltending perhaps the only thing holding it back from a serious title run. With Niemi's recent play, however, the Hawks' presumptive weak link may have been remedied.
Who's hot -- Someone might want to find out what got into Colin Fraser this month. Chicago's gritty center only has seven goals this season, but five of them came in the final four games of the season. … Nashville's Jason Arnott is no stranger to the postseason -- his goal in double overtime of Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals gave New Jersey its second championship, and his play late in the season might be a sign that the Preds' captain is itching to get back. The veteran center had seven points in his last seven games.
Injury report -- Chicago is still without Johnson (concussion-like symptoms) and Campbell (broken collarbone), but winger Troy Brouwer (personal reasons) is listed as probable. … Wingers Joel Ward (illness) and Patric Hornqvist (upper-body injury) are both expected to play for Nashville, but defenseman Denis Grebeshkov (lower-body injury) is questionable.
Stat pack -- Niemi had his share of rough outings this season, but he finished the year with a respectable 26 wins, tying him for 17th most in the League. While the total seems unspectacular, it is worth noting that Niemi only made 35 starts -- fewer than 33 other goaltenders. Chicago won an impressive 74 percent of the time when the Finnish Fortress got the call.
Puck drop -- With more than three months gone since they last saw one another, neither team is likely to know what to expect. This will be the first time Nashville and Chicago have met in the postseason, but with last year's conference final run under their belts, the young, yet experienced Hawks could have the edge. Nashville may have the edge in net, though, and if Rinne can stand on his head in this series, the Predators might start turning some.