1. CENTRAL SLIDE
Nashville is one of several Central Division teams going through some midseason struggles. The Predators have lost three straight games and five of their last six, most recently getting shut out by Arizona 4-0 on Saturday in the desert. On the other hand, the Blackhawks are working on a season-long seven-game winning streak. The combination of Chicago’s strong push and rival teams skidding has caused the standings to shuffle in a tightly packed division. When the Blackhawks’ streak began, they were sitting in fourth place, just two points ahead of Nashville; Chicago is now just four points behind first-place Dallas, while the Predators have earned just one point over that span and now occupy fifth place.
2. TRADING PLACES
Last week the Predators were involved in the season’s biggest trade thus far, sending defenseman Seth Jones to Columbus for center Ryan Johansen. Jones was a big part of Nashville’s deep defense, which still features Roman Josi (the team’s leader in points), captain Shea Weber, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm. That depth certainly is why the organization felt it could stand to lose a young, promising blueliner in order to add offensive talent. Johansen was having a down year in Columbus and didn’t seem to fit with new head coach John Tortorella, but the talent is there; the 23-year-old is just two years removed from a 33-goal season. The former fourth-overall pick has two points in his first two games with the Preds. He’s currently skating as the top-line center, flanked by Filip Fosberg and James Neal.
3. CAGE MATCH
Whenever the Blackhawks and Predators meet, there’s a strong chance for the game to be decided in the blue paint, as both teams feature star goaltenders. Corey Crawford is riding a season-long five-game winning streak, and the two-time Stanley Cup winner has emerged victorious in 12 of his last 15 starts. On the other end of the ice stands Pekka Rinne, who made 35 saves on 36 shots in the previous meeting between these two teams on Dec. 10. The 6-foot-5 netminder hasn’t quite been able to string together the same success that he’s had over the span of his 10-year career, and his struggles have mirrored his team’s current slide. Rinne has lost three of his last four starts, contributing to a 16-13-6 record, with a .906 save percentage and 2.48 goals-against average. Crawford, on the other hand, is 23-10-2 with a .926 SV%, 2.21 GAA and a league-high six shutouts.
4. THE MARIAN TYPE
Thirteen different Blackhawks registered at least a point in the Blackhawks’ 6-3 win over Colorado on Sunday, ranging from the usual suspects like Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, down to depth forwards such as Brandon Mashinter and Dennis Rasmussen. But perhaps the player who was happiest to light the lamp on Sunday was Marian Hossa, who broke a 14-game drought with a two-goal effort.
“You could tell it’s been such a long time, and definitely it felt good,” Hossa said after the game. “I tried to work to get opportunities and [even though] the puck doesn’t go in, I try to stay positive.”
Hossa is now seven tallies away from becoming the 44th player in NHL history to reach the 500-goal milestone.
5. POWER SURGE
One of the biggest bright spots this season for the Blackhawks has been the success of the power play, which currently ranks third in the league behind Boston and Washington. Should the Blackhawks get time with the man advantage at the UC on Tuesday, they’ll be going against a penalty-kill unit that’s allowed 31 goals this season, tied for third-most in the league. Patrick Kane has been a big reason for that success this year, netting 13 of his 25 goals on the power play, the most recent coming on Sunday against Colorado; he has 10 more than any other player on the team and the most in the NHL. That first unit also includes Kane’s linemate, Artemi Panarin (10 points with the man advantage this season), as well as veteran defensemen Brent Seabrook (12 points) and Duncan Keith (11 points), who round out the top four power-play producers on the team.
THE FINAL WORD
The Blackhawks are hot and the Predators are cold, but recent trends don’t mean much when the puck is dropped. With Johansen in the mix, the Predators now have more power down the middle than they have in years, and if Rinne returns to vintage form, Tuesday’s task could become that much harder for Chicago. Either way, there won’t be any excitement lost in a battle between two teams with goals within reach; the Blackhawks are closing in on first place in the Central Division, while the Predators are trying to hold on to the final wild card spot in the West, and two points for either team will prove valuable in their quests.