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No stage fright for Blackhawks ahead of playoff rematch with Nashville

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks

A man wise in the ways of hockey and horses, Joel Quenneville understands that past performances, like a rearview mirror, deserves respect but not your undivided attention.

That explains why the Blackhawks head coach uttered a direct hit—“absolutely zero”—when probed about a possible chill in the air surrounding Wednesday night’s opener of the Stanley Cup playoffs in Nashville.

Quenneville spoke Saturday night after the Blackhawks – minus healthy scratches Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith – bowed 3-2 in Denver, their fourth straight defeat.

Specifically, though, Coach Q was asked to comment on the Predators. They commence the postseason with six consecutive losses, their second such cold streak in less than two months. Suffice it to say, neither squad can be accused of peaking too soon.

The Blackhawks, whose fans worry about an uneven winter because that’s what caring fans do, will not suffer stage fright in Bridgestone Arena. Chicago’s boys of winter have an international following, which – along with their invaluable experience – produced 24 road victories, setting a franchise record. The Predators, meanwhile, were a dazzling 28-9-4 at home.

Only once have these franchises met in the playoffs: the Western Conference Quarterfinals in 2010. After Nashville prevailed in Game 1 at the United Center, a superannuated historian likened the Predators to in-laws. Having not seen them since Christmas, one can forget how annoying they can be.

Game 5 was a seminal moment for the Blackhawks en route to their first Stanley Cup since 1961. With the series tied 2-2, they were down 4-3 at the United Center when Marian Hossa drew a five-minute major at 18:57 of the third period. However, Patrick Kane capitalized on an errant pass to score a shorthanded goal with 13.6 seconds left, and Hossa won it in overtime. The visiting Blackhawks clinched in Game 6.

Well, similarities exist five years hence. These teams last convened at the United Center on December 29, when 22,208 were treated to a 5-4 shootout triumph by the Blackhawks, who trailed 3-0 and 4-3 before Bryan Bickell made it 4-4 with 1:13 to spare. Toews crafted the only shootout goal against Pekka Rinne, who was a tall order to solve in 2010. Both rosters are much altered, but Rinne is still properly celebrated, although Corey Crawford shares the Jennings Trophy with Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens as the No. 1 goalie(s) on the team yielding the fewest goals (189).

The Blackhawks and Predators vied in a Central Division wherein all seven clubs posted winning records – a curiosity in professional sports. Not even in a National Football League that breeds parity were any of its eight four-team divisions so contentious. Why, the Colorado Avalanche finished a rather lively last in the Central with 90 points.

They were part of a startling turnover in the National Hockey League. Not participating in this year’s playoffs are the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, the 2013-14 Presidents’ Trophy-winning Boston Bruins and the dislodged Central champion Avs. Also out are the Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars, Philadelphia Flyers and San Jose Sharks. What do all seven franchises have in common? They all had winning records. The Bruins accumulated 96 points, and the Kings 95. Not enough. If the Blue Jackets hadn’t run out of games, they would be evoking fear and trembling.

The aforementioned teams were supplanted in this year’s Stanley Cup chase by the Predators, Calgary Flames, New York Islanders, Ottawa Senators, Vancouver Canucks, Washington Capitals and Winnipeg Jets. The amazing Senators were 14 points south of a playoff berth well beyond the All-Star break, then went on a 23-4-4 binge. Conversely, the Predators held first place by nine points in late February, only to wind up five points behind the St. Louis Blues.

The Blues were one of three new division champions. Montreal won the Atlantic, and the Rangers took the Metropolitan, along with the Presidents’ Trophy. Only the Anaheim Ducks in the Pacific managed to repeat. They also earned another No. 1 seed in the Western Conference with 51 victories and 109 points, but with a goal differential of only plus-10. How is that feasible? The Ducks won 33 games by one goal, breaking the league record of 32 set by the 2006-07 New Jersey Devils. St. Louis had an identical 51-24-7 mark as Anaheim, yet with a goal differential of plus-47.

So many numbers. Here’s one more. Four. To eliminate the Blackhawks now that it matters, a foe must beat them four times in two weeks.

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