Friday’s out-of-town scoreboard did not exactly illuminate the playoff picture for the Blackhawks, who must wait for Sunday’s regular-season finale to determine their first-round opponents. Whether Chicago will face St. Louis or Colorado, though, there’s no overlooking the Nashville Predators, who are looking for one last win to close out their home schedule. A year after the Blackhawks swept all five regular-season matchups, they’ve won just one of four tilts so far, including suffering a lopsided 7-2 loss on Nov. 16 on the road.
Preds netminder Pekka Rinne made 29 saves in a 2-0 win at Phoenix, all but ending the Coyotes’ playoff chances. More importantly for Nashville, the victory established Rinne as the franchise’s all-time wins leader (162), surpassing Tomas Vokoun. The Blackhawks have had trouble getting pucks past the tall Finn, who has a .921 career save percentage against Chicago, and two wins already in head-to-head matchups this season: a 3-2 win on March 14, and a 2-0 shutout on March 23, both of which were recorded at the United Center.
The Blackhawks went 0-for-3 on the power play on Friday at Washington and have now scored just three times in their last 33 opportunities with the man advantage (10 percent). Breaking out of their funk against Nashville will be a tough task, as the Preds have been perfect on their penalty kill through the last four games (9-for-9). Part of the problem has simply been a lack of personnel, with both Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews sidelined for the last two weeks, so finding success heading into the playoffs could mean simplifying zone entries and establishing a strong cycle.
With a victory on Saturday, the Blackhawks can reach 20 road wins for the first time since 2010-11, and they’ll need a full team effort to do so. Chicago has won just two of their last 10 road assignments and have been shut out three times, including Friday’s 4-0 loss at Washington. Antti Raanta turned aside all seven shots he faced in the third period after relieving Corey Crawford against the Capitals; he’ll likely make the start on Saturday in Nashville. Raanta won his first career start against the Preds, making 27 saves on 28 shots in a 3-1 win at Bridgestone Arena on Dec. 17.
Defenseman Shea Weber will likely end the season leading Nashville in scoring, marking his second consecutive year pacing the team offensively. He logged his 53rd point of the season (1A) in Thursday’s win over Phoenix, matching his career high in points, while his 21 goals are tied for the team lead. As Weber goes, so do the Preds: The team has a 15-1-2 record when the captain scores, and he paces the team with 25 power-play points (11G, 14A), crucial for a unit that ranks 11th in the league (19.0 percent).
Head Coach Joel Quenneville hasn’t indicated whether more of his stars will sit out the regular-season finale on Saturday, but if that indeed is the case, expect the Blackhawks to go back to basics against an opponent that prides itself on structure and neutral-zone discipline. Nashville is one of just a handful of teams with a better team faceoff percentage than Chicago—they share first in the league at 52.8 percent—so establishing possession in the offensive zone will certainly be a key to success. Whether or not the Blackhawks can ramp up their offense will depend on the lineup, but gaining two points by whatever means possible will give the squad an important confidence boost as they prepare for the intensity of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.