It's the most wonderful time of the year.
The 2017 Stanley Cup Playoff have commenced, and for the third consecutive season, the Nashville Predators find themselves vying for the ultimate prize. That journey begins tonight in Chicago as the Preds face the Blackhawks in Round One, with Game One set for a 7 p.m. CT start.
The Predators finished with 41 wins and 94 points on the season, led by the offensive efforts of Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson, who tied for the team lead with 61 points apiece. Arvidsson and Filip Forsberg tied for the team lead in goals with 31 and James Neal tallied 23 times. Roman Josi record 49 points on the season; Mike Fisher had 42. Goaltender Pekka Rinne led the Preds with a 31-19-9 record in net.
Chicago amassed 50 wins and 109 points to win the Western Conference. Patrick Kane led the team with 34 goals and 89 points, followed by Artemi Panarin with 31 goals and 74 points. Jonathan Toews had 58 points on the season, and Duncan Keith recorded 53 from the blue line. Corey Crawford led the Hawks in goal with a 32-18-4 record.
As the Preds and Hawks get set for Game One, here are three things to watch for:
Bringing Out the Best:
Chicago finished with the best record in the Central Division - as well as the Western Conference - and it's no secret they've captured the Stanley Cup three times in the past seven seasons. Yes, it doesn't get much more impressive than the Blackhawks, and while the Predators respect their opponents, they are also carrying a confidence with them, feeling they're up to the task of hanging with Chicago.
There's no better test than this for the Preds to start out, but they don't mind.
"I think facing a team like Chicago first, it's going to have to bring the best out of us as a group," Preds Captain Mike Fisher said. "We know they're a great hockey team, and they finished first for a reason. We know we're going to have to be at our best, and I think that's a good thing. That's going to really bring out the best in us as a group, and that's something you always look forward to."
Video: See the storylines for the Preds Game 1 in Chicago
Offense vs. Defense:
When it comes to putting the puck in the net, the Blackhawks have plenty of options. There's Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin, who both tallied more than 30 times this season, but the Hawks have four more who hit the 20-goal mark in 2016-17, including Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa.
On the contrary, the Preds are considered to have one of, if not the top defensive corps in the NHL with a top-four consisting of Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, P.K. Subban and Mattias Ekholm. The matchups will be something to watch throughout the series, but especially in Game One as a tone is set.
"We have respect toward them, but at the same time I feel like we match up well against them," goaltender Pekka Rinne said. "There's a lot of weapons on their team, but come playoff time I think we have a lot of firepower too. Our backbone is always the defense, and the way we can play against anybody."
Video: Rinne, Forsberg and Weber talk Preds vs. Hawks
What's In the Numbers?
If one simply looks at the head-to-head record between the two clubs, it doesn't fall into Nashville's favor. The Preds went 1-4-0 against the Hawks this season, the lone win coming on Opening Night at Bridgestone Arena.
But the playoffs are a different animal. As Head Coach Peter Laviolette well knows, anything is possible once the postseason commences.
"You can go back and look at the games we played against them this year - we liked the way we played against them, we don't like the scores all the time," Laviolette said. "You go back to that series a couple years ago in the playoffs, we liked the way we played against them, we held the lead in most of that series, but we couldn't pull off the overtime wins, couldn't get it done in the end, so we don't like the result at the end. But we feel like we can play with them, and that's what we plan to do."
Take It In:
Tonight's game comes with a 7 p.m. CT puck drop and can be seen locally on Fox Sports Tennessee and nationally on NBCSN. Pregame coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. on FS-TN, with pregame radio coverage commencing at 6 p.m. on 102.5 The Game and the Predators Radio Network.
Preds fans are invited to bring a chair or blanket to the Bridgestone Arena plaza at 6:30 p.m. to watch the game on a giant screen, purchase concessions and play family friendly games.
Or if you can't come down to the arena, catch the game at one of the many Preds Approved viewing locations throughout Middle Tennessee.
**For schedules, watch parties, giveaways and coverage of the Predators 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs run, visit the playoff hub**