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Round 1

Blackhawks vs. Predators playoff preview

Chicago has experience, but Nashville has plenty of offensive, defensive depth

by Shawn P. Roarke @sroarke_nhl / NHL.com Director of Editorial

Chicago Blackhawks (C1) vs. Nashville Predators (WC2)

Season series: Chicago 4-1-0

Last playoff meeting: 2015 Western Conference First Round; Blackhawks won series 4-2

All-time playoff series: Blackhawks lead 2-0

 

[RELATED: Blackhawks-Predators coverage | Hartman is Blackhawks' X-factor | Why Predators will win Cup]

 

How they got here

The Chicago Blackhawks claimed the top seed in the Western Conference with a strong second half. Since Jan. 1, Chicago went 27-12-4 for 58 points. Only the Washington Capitals (71 points) and Anaheim Ducks (61 points) accumulated more points in 2017 than the Blackhawks. Chicago once again rode its core to the top seed in the West.

Right wing Patrick Kane tied Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby for second in the NHL scoring race. Each had 89 points, 11 behind center Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers. Left wing Artemi Panarin, in his second season, had 74 points (31 goals, 43 assists). Captain Jonathan Toews fueled much of the second-half success, finishing with 58 points (21 goals, 37 assists) after a rough start. Forty of Toews' points came after Jan. 1.

Defenseman Duncan Keith had 53 points (six goals, 47 assists), but, more importantly, played 25:37 per game, almost four minutes more than any other player on the roster.

Corey Crawford was once again Mr. Consistency. He had at least 32 victories (32-18-4) for the fourth straight season with a 2.55 goals-against average and .918 save percentage.

The Blackhawks also rely heavily on rookies. Chicago dressed seven rookies this season, and four have at least 10 points (Ryan Hartman, 31; Nick Schmaltz, 28; Tanner Kero, 16; Vinnie Hinostroza, 14).

It took until the last week of the season, but the Predators clinched a berth in the postseason, an outcome that was expected after they advanced to Game 7 of the Western Conference Second Round last season before being eliminated by the San Jose Sharks.

Nashville had an up-and-down season but ended with a 9-5-1 run to secure the second wild card.

Left wing Viktor Arvidsson scored 31 goals in his second NHL season after scoring eight as a rookie. Left wing Filip Forsberg also had 31 goals, scoring more than 30 for the second straight season. Center Ryan Johansen finished with 47 assists and 61 points.

The Predators are driven by their defensemen. Their top four are among the strongest in the League. Roman Josi led Nashville defensemen in points (49) and ice time per game (25:04). P.K. Subban, who arrived in an offseason trade, had 40 points and averaged 24:24 per game, Ryan Ellis had 38 points and averaged 23:57, and Mattias Ekholm had 23 points and averaged 23:27.

Pekka Rinne had 31 wins, his fewest in three seasons, but had a .932 save percentage and 1.98 goals-against average in his final 13 starts.

The best-of-7 Western Conference First Round series begins at United Center on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports).

Video: Blackhawks vs Predators First Round Preview

 

5 storylines

Blackhawks chasing dynasty status: Chicago is attempting to win the Stanley Cup for the second time in three years, third in five. If successful, the Blackhawks will have won four championships since 2010. Six players on the current roster have won each of the previous three: Toews, Kane, Keith, Marian Hossa, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson. The last team to win the Cup three times in a five-year span was the 1990 Edmonton Oilers (who also won it in 1987 and 1988).

Subban in the spotlight: Subban was acquired from the Montreal Canadiens in a trade for franchise defenseman Shea Weber by general manager David Poile to give the Predators a more dynamic presence in the attacking end. The Predators played 14 playoff games last season. In eight of them, they scored two or fewer goals. Nashville averaged 2.90 goals per game this season, up from 2.73 in 2015-16.

Video: MIN@NSH: Subban finds the empty net from his own zone

Depth charges: The Predators may have the deeper offensive lineup in this series, at least on paper. Nashville had 12 players score at least 25 points; Chicago had 10. The Predators also had a dozen players score at least 10 goals; the Blackhawks had seven. However, Nashville will have to prove this advantage on the ice.

No substitute for experience: The Blackhawks have played in so many big games that almost nothing fazes them. Toews and Hjalmarsson each has played in 124 playoff games for Chicago, followed by Kane (123), Keith (122), Seabrook (119), Hossa (103) and Crawford (83). Nobody has played more playoff games with the Predators than Rinne, who has 48 appearances. Subban has played in 55 NHL playoff games, all with the Canadiens.

Not very special: Neither team was very good on the power play or the penalty kill in the regular season. Nashville finished 16th in the NHL on the power play (18.9 percent), and Chicago was 19th (18.0 percent). However, the Blackhawks went 6-for-15 on the power play against the Predators, who scored on five of 16 man-advantage opportunities in the season series. Nashville was 15th on the penalty kill (80.9 percent), and Chicago was 24th (77.7 percent).

 

By the numbers 

181: The number of points scored by Predators defensemen. Chicago's D finished with 161 points. Nashville also had 45 goals from its defense, 15 more than Chicago.

51.4: Nashville's faceoff winning percentage, eighth-highest in the League. Chicago won 47.5 percent of its draws, second-worst in the League. Johansen is the best of the Predators centers, winning 54.6 percent of his Nashville-high 1,472 faceoffs taken.

.857: Chicago's winning percentage when leading entering the third period (30-2-3), which ranked in the middle of the League. The Predators won seven games they trailed entering the third period.

 

In the spotlight

Blackhawks: Richard Panik, right wing -- It's not too often that 20-goal scorers get completely overshadowed, but that speaks to the depth of the Blackhawks. Panik, 26, had never scored more than 11 goals in an NHL season before scoring 22 this season. He is a secondary scoring threat who can change the course of this series if he gets going when Nashville tries to silence Chicago's elite players.

Predators: Kevin Fiala, left wing -- The 20-year-old rookie has 11 goals this season. But what will he do in the postseason, when space is limited and pressure is intensified? If Nashville can get depth scoring from players like Fiala, it becomes a much harder team to defend.

 

Keys to victory

Blackhawks: Consistency. The Blackhawks are the better team. They are the top seed in the West, they finished 15 points ahead of the Predators, and they have a much finer playoff pedigree. If Chicago can stay focused and play the game that it has played for much of the second half of the season, there is no reason it can't win this series.

Predators: Good goaltending. Rinne, 34, has said he does not know how many more opportunities he will get in the playoffs as Nashville's No. 1 goalie. If he wants this to be a long run, he is going to have to be spectacular and improve upon his 2.51 goals-against average and .912 save percentage in 48 NHL playoff games.

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