After having only seen each other twice in 66 games this year, the Blackhawks and Nashville Predators resume their Central Division rivalry on Friday; the two teams will face off three times in their next 16 contests before season’s end. Chicago and Nashville split the first two meetings this year—both in Nashville—with Chicago winning the most recent tilt 3-1 on Dec. 17. Though the Predators can often frustrate opponents with their defense, the Blackhawks have enjoyed a fair amount of success recently against Nashville; they are 11-6-2 since 2010 in contests between the two teams, and have not lost at home to the Preds since March 25, 2012.
The list of teams against which Jonathan Toews has been successful is not short, but it seems like the captain often brings his best to games against Nashville. Toews’ 32 career points in 33 games (12G, 20A) is his second-highest total against any opponent, behind only Columbus. He also has seven career multi-point games against the Predators.
It isn’t often that a defenseman is his team’s leading scorer, but Nashville captain Shea Weber is not your run-of-the-mill blueliner. Known to have the hardest shot in the league, the 2014 Olympic gold medalist has put his talents to good use on the point for Nashville’s power play; his nine goals with the man advantage share first among league defenders, and his 42 points pace the Predators. Though Weber currently sits at a career-worst -14 plus/minus rating, it’s fair to say that much of that total is due to the Predators’ overall trouble during 5-on-5 play (see below).
The 2013-14 season has undoubtedly been a trying time for Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne. He returned in March after sitting out four months with health problems relating to his offseason hip surgery, and though he has performed roughly to his career averages in his four most recent starts, he is just 1-3-0 since being activated off injured reserve; in one of those three losses—a 1-0 defeat at Columbus on Saturday—Rinne made 35 of 36 saves, but took the 'L' anyways. The 31-year-old Finnish netminder has not started fewer than 43 games since 2008-09, a testament to his overall durability and remarkable success over the past six years; but he has only started 13 games in 2013-14. Nashville needs the kind of stellar play that Rinne usually provides to be successful, and they’ll need it soon if the Predators have any hope of making the 2014 postseason.
Judging by the stats, one area where the Blackhawks might be able to take advantage against Nashville is at even strength; Chicago is the Western Conference’s best team in 5-on-5 play, scoring 1.41 goals for every one that they surrender, while Nashville has scored just 0.78 goals for every one they’ve given up at even strength. Chicago leads all teams with 161 5-on-5 goals, and only three teams have given up more than Nashville’s 138 even-strength goals this year.
Beginning Friday, the Blackhawks will play six of their next seven games at the United Center, and a win over the Central Division’s last-place team would start it off on the right foot. Nashville was a seller during the NHL’s recent trade deadline; they traded away their leading scorer and first-ever draft pick, David Legwand, and they only have two players with more than 40 points this year. The Blackhawks will need to stay out of the box if they hope to take home two points, and the game plan doesn't need to be fancy—just minimize the number of mistakes for Nashville to capitalize on.