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Coaching rematch when Predators meet Blackhawks

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The Chicago Blackhawks are hoping history will repeat itself five years later.

The run to the Stanley Cup in 2010 started with a six-game series against the Nashville Predators in the Western Conference Quarterfinals. Nashville is again in Chicago's way to start the Stanley Cup Playoffs, only this time the Predators have home-ice advantage.

Nashville is back in the playoffs under first-year coach Peter Laviolette after failing to qualify in their final two seasons with Barry Trotz, the only coach in Predators history until Laviolette came aboard.

Chicago is in the playoffs for the seventh consecutive season under coach Joel Quenneville. The Blackhawks have won the Stanley Cup twice (2010, 2013) and reached the Western Conference Finals another two times (2009, 2014).

Laviolette coached against Quenneville and the Blackhawks in the 2010 Stanley Cup Final with the Philadelphia Flyers. Chicago won in six games.

The Blackhawks reached the playoffs despite not having right wing Patrick Kane for the final 21 games of the season because of a broken clavicle. Kane was cleared Monday to return to action.

The Predators slumped down the stretch, but they had built enough cushion to finish second in the Central Division. Nashville had a League-high 84 points, six more than any team, after winning its sixth straight game on Feb. 17.

Chicago and Nashville try to play a similar style, which should make this series a bit of a chess match between Quenneville and Laviolette, sort of the way it was during the 2010 Cup Final.

Speed through the neutral zone and activating the defense are key parts of the system play. Chicago had the better of it in the regular season, but just barely.

The Blackhawks won three out of four games against the Predators, but needed extra time to win two games at United Center; 2-1 in overtime on Oct. 18 and 5-4 in a shootout on Dec. 29, which was the last time the teams played one another. Chicago won 3-1 at Bridgestone Arena on Dec. 6 and Nashville won 3-2 at home on Oct. 23.

Chicago outscored Nashville 11-9 and had a 142-120 edge in shots on goal.

Left wing James Neal scored five of Nashville's goals in the season series. Right wing Marian Hossa led Chicago with three goals, and defenseman Duncan Keith led the Blackhawks with four assists.

Chicago's likely starting goalie in Game 1, Corey Crawford, appeared in two of the four games this season and was 2-0-0, allowing five goals on 60 shots. Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne allowed eight goals on 104 shots in three appearances.

Forwards

Rookie Filip Forsberg and veteran Mike Ribeiro were the catalysts for Nashville's offense for most of the regular season. Forsberg's dynamic offensive skill set made him one of the top rookies in the NHL, and Ribeiro had a bounce-back season after being bought out of his contract by the Arizona Coyotes in the offseason.

Center Colin Wilson had 20 goals and 42 points, but his production faltered toward the end of the season. The second line of Wilson, Mike Fisher and Craig Smith was vital to Nashville's success. When it was producing along with the first line, Nashville usually won.

Center Mike Santorelli was traded to the Predators from the Toronto Maple Leafs on Feb. 15 and has played on all four lines. Santorelli can play on the wing, so his versatility provides more options with line combinations. The veteran presence of center Matt Cullen on the third line was a good security blanket for rookie Calle Jarnkrok. Left wing Viktor Stalberg's speed is the biggest offensive threat in the bottom six.

The bottom two lines didn't produce a lot of offense but featured one of the best faceoff men in in the League, center Paul Gaustad. He will be on the ice when the Predators have to win a key draw. Left wings Taylor Beck and Gabriel Bourque were nice fits alongside Gaustad on the fourth line, along with left wing Eric Nystrom.

Many teams would be severely hampered if a player like right wing Patrick Kane was lost to a long-term injury. The Blackhawks felt a sting initially in puck possession and offensive-zone entries during power plays, but eventually their depth of talent took over.

Captain Jonathan Toews shouldered more of the scoring load, and his supporting cast boosted production. Left wing Patrick Sharp broke out of a funk, Marian Hossa and Brandon Saad each found ways to contribute, and the scoring picked up from bottom-six centers Andrew Shaw and Marcus Kruger.

Adding Antoine Vermette and Andrew Desjardins before the NHL Trade Deadline hasn't worked how the Blackhawks envisioned it, but each has contributed.

Center Brad Richards had a turbulent season. When he's playing well, Chicago rolls multiple effective centers onto the ice and tends to dominate puck possession. When he's off, they quickly lose steam after Toews leaves the ice.

Vermette, who was centering the top line for the Arizona Coyotes, started out centering the Blackhawks' second line. He was shifted to right wing when Richards was promoted from the third line, but coach Joel Quenneville said it's likely Vermette will shift back to center at some point.

Defensemen

They are capable of having as big an impact on a game offensively as they are defensively. Shea Weber is known for having one of the hardest shots in the League and is an elite two-way defenseman, and partner Roman Josi joined him in the company of the NHL's elite.

Josi set a career high with 60-plus points and finished in the top five in average time on ice, playing more than 26 minutes a game. His emergence sets up one of the most formidable top defense pairings in the League.

Mattias Ekholm and Seth Jones had career seasons and will play in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time. Jones is mobile with good size and is able to create chances offensively off the rush. Ekholm added a physical presence to his game, with 1-on-1 defense and an ability to win battles for the puck along the wall.

Ryan Ellis and Cody Franson are offensive defenseman on the third pairing. Ellis has improved defensively, and Franson's snap shot allows him to get more pucks through traffic and on net because of the quick release. Victor Bartley and Anton Volchenkov were healthy scratches for the majority of the final 20 games but are available to step in if injuries occur.

The Blackhawks have issues here that stem from a preseason trade and a key injury.

Prior to the start of the season, general manager Stan Bowman traded Nick Leddy to get the Blackhawks under the NHL salary cap. Leddy played nearly every game of the regular season the previous two years as the fifth defenseman, which allowed Quenneville to rotate older veterans next to him.

After the trade, rookie Trevor van Riemsdyk took the lead filling the void. He played 18 games and started to impress Quenneville, but a shot fractured his kneecap. The injury knocked van Riemsdyk out for three months, then last week had surgery for a wrist injury sustained in the American Hockey League, derailing his attempt to get back in the lineup.

Rather than alternating Michal Rozsival, 36, with David Rundblad as the sixth defenseman, Quenneville had to play the veteran quite a bit. Rozsival's play held up for a while but has dropped off the past couple of months. Rundblad has good moments offensively but his skating and defensive play are liabilities. Bowman acquired Tim Erixon in a midseason trade, but he never gained Quenneville's trust and was scooped up by the Toronto Maple Leafs through waivers. Bowman then acquired 40-year-old Kimmo Timonen in a trade with the Philadelphia Flyers on Feb. 28.

Timonen, who was out for nine months because of blood clots, has struggled to keep pace. The top four defenders -- Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya -- are likely to receive a heavy workload.

Goalies

Pekka Rinne was playing at an MVP-caliber level before sustaining a sprained knee on Jan. 13 against the Vancouver Canucks. He had one of the best seasons of his career and was named an NHL All-Star for the first time.

The main difference in success from last season to this season has been having Rinne in the lineup. He missed 51 games in 2013-14 with a hip infection, and Nashville missed the playoffs by three points. Rinne's return has been the most important addition.

Rinne loves to come out of his net and handle the puck to try to break out of the defensive zone more efficiently. He has been known to try a long pass down ice to catch teams making a line change.

Rinne has proven he's one of the best goaltenders in the League when he's healthy and has his game in order. His height and athleticism make him difficult to score on because he can cover a lot of the net with his length and quick side-to-side movement.

Carter Hutton played sparingly when Rinne was healthy.

The arrival of goaltending coach Jimmy Waite, younger brother of former Blackhawks goaltending coach Stephane Waite, coincided with a big improvement in net. Starter Corey Crawford and each backup used this season, Scott Darling or Antti Raanta, put up impressive numbers.

Crawford posted his highest save percentage since the Blackhawks' 2013 Stanley Cup championship season and reached 30 wins for the fourth time in the past four complete seasons. Crawford missed 14 games because of two injuries, which created opportunities for Darling and Raanta.

Prior to Darling taking over the backup job in February, Raanta went 7-4-1 in 14 games (12 starts) and had a 1.89 goals-against average and .936 save percentage. Darling, who made his NHL debut at age 26 this season, went 9-3-0 with a 1.86 GAA and .939 save percentage in 13 games (12 starts).

Crawford led the Blackhawks' bid to win the William M. Jennings Trophy for the fewest goals allowed, an award Crawford and Ray Emery won for Chicago in 2012-13.

Last season, Crawford played well through the regular season and first two rounds of the playoffs but stumbled in the seven-game loss to the Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference Final. His second injury this season, an ankle sprain leaving a concert, caused him some mobility issues initially, but he appears to be back in top form.

Coaches

Peter Laviolette won the Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006 and took the Philadelphia Flyers to the Final in 2010. The Predators have never had that type of postseason experience behind the bench.

Laviolette is a passionate coach who preaches positivity to his players. He's always looking to take something good from a game, even a loss. Laviolette has shown a knack for knowing the right buttons to push in games, particularly when it comes to calling his timeout.

He preaches an aggressive, attacking system, encouraging his defensemen to activate and join the rush when they get a chance. He wants the Predators to be a relentless team on the forecheck. Laviolette is not afraid to change up the line combinations, sometimes even in the middle of a game, if things have gone stale offensively.

Disagreeing with Quenneville's lineup decisions has become almost an everyday occurrence for fans and media. He gives reasons behind certain moves, when asked, but could just as easily point to his coaching record in the regular season and playoffs.

Quenneville, who will coach in the playoffs for a 16th time in 18 seasons, has the third most regular-season wins in NHL history, behind Blackhawks senior adviser Scotty Bowman and Al Arbour. Quenneville record in the postseason is 99-82 and he won the Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks in 2010 and 2013.

Quenneville has a knack for winning the matchup game in the playoffs, which leads to wins, and is unrelenting in his demand for two-way play. His players usually rise to the occasion and he's done a good job surrounding himself with coaching talent.

Special teams

The power play was consistently a struggle. The faceoff to start the power play was often lost, making it more difficult to set up and get quality looks. There was an inability to make teams pay for taking penalties, and that cost Nashville some games.

Struggles on the power play are perplexing given that Weber has been one of the most dangerous weapons in the League. His booming shot combined with traffic in front of the net make it very hard for goaltenders to see the puck.

Six defensemen and three groups of forwards are used on the penalty kill, which finished near the middle of the pack in the League and improved as the season progressed. Gaustad was a big part, especially his ability to win faceoffs which often allowed the zone to be cleared.

It's been separate tales to describe the Blackhawks' special teams, which is no different than Quenneville's previous six seasons in Chicago.

The penalty kill led the NHL most of the season, and the power play searched for consistent production from start to finish. The Blackhawks have won the Stanley Cup twice under Quenneville with a pedestrian power play, but each title was backed by a stellar penalty kill.

That has to be the biggest concern now. The power play has struggled, but a dip in penalty killing was more troubling. After killing penalties at a success rate of nearly 90 percent most of the season, Chicago allowed opponents to score on about one in four power-play opportunities over the final quarter of the season.

Trading forward Ben Smith, who played with Marcus Kruger on the first unit, didn't help. Joakim Nordstrom is a good fill-in but isn't as productive in 5-on-5 play as Desjardins, who was acquired in the Smith trade.

Series changer

James Neal
Left Wing - NSH
GOALS: 23 | ASST: 14 | PTS: 37
SOG: 216 | +/-: 13

James Neal -- He is a unique player in Predators history: a shoot-first, sniping forward who has the ability to score goals most other players in the League simply can't.

Neal has been streaky throughout his career, and that continued this season. If Neal can get on a hot streak, he will provide the necessary offense.

Perhaps the most overlooked part of Neal's game is his size and ability to win battles for the puck along the boards. There is not a lot of size at forward, and Neal's strength are a bonus.

Neal battled injuries in the regular season, so his health will be key. He ended the regular season with Forsberg and Ribeiro on the top line.

Marian Hossa
Right Wing - CHI
GOALS: 22 | ASST: 38 | PTS: 60
SOG: 243 | +/-: 16
Marian Hossa -- The Blackhawks have a number of options who could fit this description, but none more than the veteran forward. The right wing goes through extended goal-scoring scoring slumps, but his two-way play never dips and he's capable of busting out with a lot of goals in a short amount of time.

He proved it again this year by emerging from a dry spell to score seven times over a four-game goal streak, including three straight games with two goals. The Blackhawks went 2-0-2 and Hossa was the primary reason they got a point in all four games.

Hossa had another dip to finish the regular season, but his five two-goal games this season show how quickly the 35-year-old can change a game or series.

What-If

PREDATORS WILL WIN IF … Ribeiro is able to continue to produce offensively and be a playmaker against top competition. He has to prove he can match up with other top centers in the League in a seven-game series. He will have to have an impact on the game defensively in the playoffs, as well as on faceoffs. Ribeiro struggled in the circle this season, and those numbers will have to improve to hang on to the puck and generate offense. He doesn't have a lot of speed, but he is very shifty and has a unique way of handling the puck. Ribeiro is one of the best passers in the League, and that ability allows him to create open shots for his linemates. If Ribeiro can prove that he can match up as a No. 1 center, the Predators should be in good shape.

BLACKHAWKS WILL WIN IF … The Blackhawks must fix defensive issues that led to their puck-possession game sliding. Chicago is one of the NHL's elite teams when the puck doesn't spend a lot of time in its end of the rink. Lately that hasn't been the case.

In net, Crawford is a proven, top goaltender, but he can't win the series alone. The Blackhawks must surround him with great defensive play.

Written by Dan Rosen, Robby Stanley and Brian Hedger

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