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New-look Predators have Blackhawks' attention

by Brian Hedger

CHICAGO -- It's early, but it's starting to look like the Western Conference and Central Division need to make room for another legitimate contender.

After missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs two straight seasons and parting with the only coach they'd ever known, Barry Trotz, the Nashville Predators (4-0-2) are off to their best start since 2010-11 under new coach Peter Laviolette.

The Predators are one of two teams in the West without a regulation loss, joined by the Chicago Blackhawks (4-0-1). Chicago happens to be the next opponent for Nashville, and the Blackhawks are ready to put their great start to the test Thursday at Bridgestone Arena (8 p.m. ET; CSN-CH, FS-TN).

The season is in its infancy, but this is a matchup that has the feeling of a rekindled rivalry.


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"It was fun going there in 2010, when we played [the Predators] in the playoffs and had that great [first-round] series against them," Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane said Wednesday, a day after scoring two power-play goals in a 4-0 win against the Philadelphia Flyers at United Center. "They probably dropped off a little bit the past couple years, but it seems like they're back right where they were. They added some players, they've got great goaltending, obviously, and one of the best defensemen in the League in [Shea Weber], so it's a tough team to play."

The Blackhawks played the new-look Predators on Saturday and needed a shorthanded goal by captain Jonathan Toews in overtime to win. Chicago left that game impressed by what it saw from Nashville.

As Kane mentioned, Laviolette isn't the only new face on the Predators bench. The team that coined the phrase "Smashville" for its physical, defense-first mantra is now sporting an influx of new faces and skills, after finishing three points behind the Dallas Stars last season for the final Western Conference wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Headlining the additions are right wing James Neal, acquired in an offseason trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and playmaking center Mike Ribeiro, who signed as a free agent after leaving the Arizona Coyotes. Using Laviolette's system, they've changed things offensively, along with 20-year old forward Filip Forsberg, speedy 23-year old center Calle Jarnkrok, and veteran center Derek Roy.

"A few days ago, when I looked at their lineup, I was surprised at how many new pieces they had," Chicago right wing Marian Hossa said. "They have lots of offensive players, so obviously they have a new coach and new pieces, and also the chemistry on their team looks a bit different. They're more offensive now."

Complementing that added attack is what Nashville retained defensively.

The Blackhawks noticed that part of the Predators' effort too, particularly on the penalty kill. Chicago went 0-for-5 on the power play in the first game, and that was with backup goalie Carter Hutton for the finale of a back-to-back weekend set.

Pekka Rinne
Goalie - NSH
RECORD: 4-0-1
GAA: 1.55 | SVP: .940
Chicago has yet to face starter Pekka Rinne, who remains one of the NHL's elite goalies and will likely start Thursday. Led by Weber, Nashville has a well-stocked defense with Roman Josi, Seth Jones and Ryan Ellis progressing quickly.

"You look at what they did last year, they were inches away from making the playoffs and they were missing their top player [Rinne], their goaltender, for most of the season," Blackhawks left wing Patrick Sharp said. "So, you can consider them a playoff team as well. They have a new coach. They're playing with a lot of energy. They've got a lot of offensive skill players, but they still have that Nashville attitude, where they check first. They make it tough to play in all areas of the ice and I'm assuming they play even harder at home. It's going to be a tough team to deal with again."

Nashville has given Chicago trouble in two of the past three seasons, sandwiched around the Blackhawks' Stanley Cup championship of 2012-13. Chicago went 5-0-0 against Nashville that season but finished 2-4-0 in 2011-12 and 1-4-0 last season.

"The last couple of years, Nashville is always one of those teams that gives us trouble and was always a playoff team for [several] years," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "We've always considered them a tough opponent. That's what makes our division so tough. The teams that weren't in the playoffs last year, they could definitely be in a position of being in the top three or four the following years. The [Predators have] put themselves in a spot right now to get off to a great start."

In other words, Trotz might be gone but there's plenty left in "Smashville" to concern the Blackhawks and the rest of the NHL.

"We're feeling pretty confident here, but we're not going to look ahead either," Weber said Monday, according to the Predators website. "We've got some tough games coming up this week. We've had a good start to the season and we want to sustain that, but we recognize that we're going to have to get better as the year goes on too."

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