In recent years, a date with Nashville in the first round of the playoffs has been a harbinger of Stanley Cup glory. In 2010, an unforgettable Game 5 ending at United Center helped set the stage for a young Chicago team to break a 49-year title drought. And in 2015, Scott Darling's heroics in net steadied the ship when the Blackhawks ran into problems against the speedy Preds. Both series went six games, with plenty of back-and-forth action.
Will the third postseason meeting between these teams follow the established pattern? It won't be easy for Chicago. The Predators have revamped their style considerably over the last two seasons, growing more confident in a puck-possession playing style with the additions of top-line center Ryan Johansen and defenseman P.K. Subban. The added offensive depth and mobility means Nashville now stacks up quite well against Chicago, despite a lopsided regular-season series in which the Blackhawks won four of five matchups.
Additionally, the Preds have put together one of the strongest runs in the NHL down the stretch, going 14-7-4 in their final 25 tilts and making what seemed to be a full recovery from a first half that was marred by injuries to key players and inconsistency in special teams. But the Blackhawks also experienced a second-half surge of their own when they strung together two point streaks of seven to overtake Minnesota for top seed in the west. Now they're in prime position, guaranteed home-ice advantage through the conference finals if they advance to that stage, and hoping for a long postseason run that will lead to the organization's fourth Stanley Cup in eight years.
Both teams can boast at least one line featuring not one, but two 30-goal scorers. Nashville's top trio of Johansen, Filip Forsberg (31 goals) and Viktor Arvidsson (31 goals) have been one of the league's best in terms of not only driving play when they're on the ice, but putting the puck in the net. Forsberg had a very slow start, scoring just two goals until mid-December, but his second-half surge was astounding, and he's more than capable of finding another gear for the playoffs. Arvidsson, a 2014 fourth-round pick, was one of the league's biggest breakouts this season, exploding for 61 points in 80 games after finishing with 16 in 56 games last year. His biggest asset is his ability and willingness to shoot (he shared 20th in the league with 246 shots on goal, averaging more than 3 per game), and his emergence has provided Nashville with another scoring threat besides Forsberg on their top line.
The Blackhawks are getting a big boost to their forward corps in Artem Anisimov, who missed the last 13 games of the season with a lower-body injury. His return means the reunion of Chicago's second line, which features the other pair of 30-goal scorers in the series -- Patrick Kane (34) and Artemi Panarin (31). Whichever team can halt their opponent's "big three" while getting depth scoring will have a significant advantage, and Chicago might have the edge in that respect, with four other 20-goal scorers on the roster compared to just one for Nashville. One of them, Richard Panik, tallied his first NHL hat trick on Oct. 15 against the Preds, while Ryan Hartman (who just missed joining the 20-goal club with 19 to his name, still an impressive total) collected one of his own on Jan. 8 against Nashville.
Nashville might be without some of their offensive depth on Thursday, as Colin Wilson and Calle Jarnkrok missed practice on Wednesday and could sit out with lower-body injuries.
Subban's acquisition was the biggest storyline last offseason, as the former Norris Trophy winner was moved from Montreal to Nashville for longtime Preds captain Shea Weber. In some ways, this was the final piece enabling the Preds to complete their makeover into a team that can run and gun with the best of them. He's formed a formidable pairing with Mattias Ekholm, and the pair are possession monsters, sharing third among defensive duos in the league with a 55.1 adjusted corsi (min. 700 even-strength minutes, per corsica.hockey).
The plays will go through not only these two, but also what some would call Nashville's other top pairing of Roman Josi (who should be in the lineup for Game 1 despite carrying a lower-body injury) and Ryan Ellis, both capable puck-movers. The Preds have one of the more dynamic blue lines in the league in terms of getting involved in the play, and head Coach Peter Laviolette tends to place a lot of trust in his top four, playing each of them more than 23 minutes per night. Adding a second wave to the attack will be the key for the Predators' blue line to turn games in their favor.
As for the Blackhawks, everything old is new again, as Head Coach Joel Quenneville will roll out a top six that looks pretty familiar, from Duncan Keith on down to trade deadline acquisition Johnny Oduya. And even counting out Michal Rozsival, who underwent facial surgery earlier this week, It's a blue line that has 12 Stanley Cups between them; unlike last season, when a disjointed defense faced on the heavy-hitting St. Louis Blues, this group knows how to prepare for -- and what it will take to stop -- a Predators team that wants to show its teeth.
Corey Crawford and Pekka Rinne have nearly identical save percentages at all strengths and in fact share 11th among starters with a .918 overall SV%. But Crawford is 3-1-0 against the Preds this season -- with the lone loss coming in the first weekend of the season due to a disastrous penalty kill -- while Rinne started just three of the five matchups, going 1-2-0.
The 34-year-old has seen his consistency drop over the last few seasons due to injuries and age, but he still stands 6 foot 5 and is capable of big-game performances. He may not be expected to carry the team as he once did, given the quality of the skaters in front of him, but the Blackhawks will certainly test him with their own offensive depth.
Crawford reached the 200-win mark earlier this year during another strong campaign; in his seven seasons as the Blackhawks' undisputed starter, the 32-year-old has posted win totals of 33, 30, 19 (earning the Jennings Trophy in the lockout-shortened year), 32, 32, 35 and 32. His one postseason hiccup did come against Nashville in 2015, when Darling was needed to step in, but the Blackhawks should feel secure with the same goaltending tandem that has provided stellar goaltending for the past three seasons.