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Blackhawks Buzz: Nashville blue line providing big offensive contributions

by Emerald Gao / Chicago Blackhawks


1. NASHING TEETH

Chicago and Nashville are slated for two matchups over the next three days, with the first meeting of the season scheduled for Tuesday at the United Center. The Preds have kept pace with the Central Division despite inconsistent scoring—they suffered a three-game stretch before Thanksgiving without finding the back of the net. The Blackhawks finally got some depth scoring in Sunday's 3-1 win over Winnipeg, with the top line of Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Teuvo Teravainen contributing the first two goals of the game and Joel Quenneville calling Hossa's effort (1G, 1A) his best of the season. The Predators arrive in town on the back of a chippy but dominant 3-2 win on Monday in Boston, outshooting the Bruins 33-17 and converting two of seven power plays.

2. DEEP BLUE

The Predators have arguably the league's most well-rounded blue line, beginning with captain Shea Weber and featuring dynamic puck movers like Ryan Ellis and Roman Josi. And with five of seven defensemen on the roster aged 25 or younger, it's a unit that's set up for success for years to come. The Blackhawks are more than familiar with Weber, who has wielded his physicality and booming slap shot against Chicago for more than 10 seasons, and the veteran netted the first hat trick by a defenseman in franchise history in a 5-4 overtime loss to Detroit on Dec. 5. Josi, meanwhile, has recently become a bonafide star, leading the team with 20 points (7G, 13A)—including 15 road points in 14 road tilts—while skating 24:58 per game; he tallied a pair of power-play goals in Nashville's win on Monday. The Preds are more than comfortable with their defensemen joining the rush and getting involved in the offensive zone, so that will be one area Blackhawks forwards will need to focus on in order to stifle the visitors' attack.

3. IN THE HISTORY BOOKS

Although the momentous point did not come on a particularly pretty play, Patrick Kane's hand-batted puck did count as the primary assist on Artemi Parnarin's empty-net goal, extending Kane's point streak to 22 games to surpass Bobby Hull's record from 1971-72 with just 1:46 remaining in regulation. He now has 13 goals and 23 assists over that span and continues to lead the league with 42 points this season. "The exciting part was just how into it the crowd was when the announcement was made [about the record] and hearing how excited they were,” Kane told reporters. The 27-year-old has only been kept off the scoresheet twice in 2015-16, and he's three games away from tying Sidney Crosby's point streak of 25—the longest among active players—set in 2009-10.

4. THE FORS AWAKENS

Swedish winger Filip Forsberg narrowly missed out on being named a finalist for the 2015 Calder Trophy as the league's best rookie, but the omission was not for lack of points. Forsberg ranked third among rookie skaters with a team-best 63 points in the regular season, then led the team with six points, including his first career hat trick, in six games against the Blackhawks in the playoffs. This year, the 21-year-old shares second on the team with 18 points, and he's been productive of late, with seven points (3G, 4A) in his last six games, though he was held off the scoresheet in Boston. Skating on Nashville's top line with Forsberg is sniper James Neal (18 points) and two-way center Calle Jarnkrok, and Head Coach Peter Laviolette will likely toss that trio out in the majority of offensive zone situations.

5. RUNS ON DUNCAN

Defenseman Duncan Keith has put together a hot streak of his own, now enjoying six straight games with a point after logging an assist on Sunday against Winnipeg. The 32-year-old has two goals and six helpers over that span, and 13 points overall in 17 games this season. Were it not for Kane's historic run, Keith would be tied for the longest active point streak in the league with Los Angeles' Jeff Carter, and his steady two-way play and ability to ignite rushes up ice was sorely missed in his 10-game absence. Paired with Niklas Hjalmarsson for most of the year, Keith has been asked to shoulder a heavier defensive burden than last year, starting 10 percent fewer shifts in the offensive zone relative to the team as opposed to 1.6 percent last season (per war-on-ice.com), and the Blackhawks will need the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner to be at his best in all three zones in order to shut down the Predators.

THE FINAL WORD

Under Laviolette, the Predators have reinvented themselves as a puck-possession team that specializes in transition play through their speedy wingers and defensemen who are willing to jump in the play—a game plan that found success against the Blackhawks in last year's playoffs on a couple of occasions. If there's one noticeable weakness in the Preds' roster, it's down the middle, where their center group hasn't been especially impressive this season. Stopping the Preds means stopping their defensemen, which will require a 200-foot game from the Blackhawks and limiting turnovers at both blue lines. Starter Pekka Rinne has not been steady lately, winning just one of his last seven starts and allowing 22 goals over that span—including eight power-play tallies—so Chicago will want to prevent the veteran netminder from getting comfortable in the crease.

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