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Instant Analysis: Preds and Hawks Meet in Round One

Preds and Hawks Meet in Postseason for Third Time; Second Time Since 2015

by Thomas Willis @TomAWillis / Digital Manager & Producer

The Nashville Predators and Chicago Blackhawks will face off in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the third time ever and second time since 2015.

The series will open next week in Chicago - with the official schedule set to be released Sunday evening - but in the meantime here is instant analysis on the upcoming series, from a look at the five-game season series, four things that will define the playoff matchup and X-factors for both teams.

Season Series Refresh

Nashville's regular-season record versus Chicago: 1-4-0

Scoring Leaders:

Goals: Nashville: Viktor Arvidsson (3); Chicago: Richard Panik, Ryan Hartman (3)

Assists: Nashville: Ryan Johansen (7); Chicago: Duncan Keith (5)

Points: Nashville: Ryan Johansen (7); Chicago: Patrick Kane (6)

Video: Predators ride special teams to 3-2 win in Nashville

October 14, 2016, at Bridgestone Arena: Predators 3, Blackhawks 2

A national audience was treated to the scene in Nashville, Tennessee, as the Predators opened one of their most-anticipated seasons in franchise history.

Trailing twice, the home team used three drives from straight away at the blue line to connect for three power-play goals and a 3-2 victory. P.K. Subban scored on his first shot in Gold, and Roman Josi knotted the contest at two before the end of the first.

"There is so much talent in this locker room," goaltender Pekka Rinne said after the win. "Any given night, there's different guys who can step up and be the guy that night. It was an interesting start, pucks were bouncing and somehow found a way to our net, but we stuck with it. I thought especially the second goal was huge, and then [Mike Fisher] stepped in with the game winner. It was a great win, and we had to work for it until the end. It was a great team win, and what a great way to start a season, and for our fans, too."

At 16:36 of the second, Fisher deflected Josi's drive from the point to give the Preds their first lead of the night and third man-advantage goal of the evening. Nashville hung on from there, with Rinne making 22 saves, including a stop on Vinnie Hinostroza with 2:04 left.

Video: NSH Recap: Preds start slow, fail to mount comeback

October 15, 2016, at United Center: Blackhawks 5, Predators 3

Richard Panik netted the first of two hat tricks by Blackhawks players during the season series when he scored three-straight goals for Chicago. The second half of the home-and-home series that opened the 2016-17 season for Nashville dealt the Preds their first loss, while bestowing the Hawks their first victory (in their third game).

The Predators were left chasing for almost the entire contest after the Hawks opened up a 3-0 lead in the first behind goals from Nick Schmaltz, Brent Seabrook and Panik's first. Colin Wilson and Craig Smith found twine to pull the visitors within a goal before Panik struck again.

"There were a couple of fortunate bounces for them, and it makes the period look worse than it was," Nashville Head Coach Peter Laviolette said. "I thought our guys played hard, out-shot them, out-chanced them and did a lot of good things. We had a big goal at the end of the [first] period but you're sitting on a 3-1 deficit, against a good hockey team, that's hard to come back from."

Viktor Arvidsson's first of the campaign - and first of three on the season against Chicago - pulled Nashville close again at 4-3 with less than 10 minutes remaining, but Patrick Kane found Panik in the crease as the forward tapped in the puck to complete his hat trick with 91 seconds left.

Marek Mazanec took the loss in net for Nashville, making 22 saves. The Preds fired 36 shots on the Hawks net.

Video: NSH Recap: Fisher scores in 3-2 loss to Blackahawks

December 29, 2016, at Bridgestone Arena: Blackhawks 3, Predators 2

Controversy defined a one-goal game between the two clubs in late December when Hawks goalie Corey Crawford drew a tripping minor on Craig Smith late in the third. The veteran netminder glided to the top of the crease before clipping skates with Smith as the winger flew by the opposition net.

From there, Jonathan Toews deflected a puck home on the subsequent power-play to even the contest, 2-2. Four minutes later, and at 14:48 of the final frame, Patrick Kane snapped home the game-winning goal and his 700th career point.

"I won't get into calls, but we just have to find a way to kill that [penalty]," said Mike Fisher, who put Nashville up 2-1 in third with a power-play goal. "Then, they get a break and odd-man rushes. I thought we battled pretty hard; it was a hard game. We had chances, we just have to execute better."

Video: NSH Recap: Offense is neutralized as Preds lose, 5-2

January 8, 2017, at United Center: Blackhawks 5, Predators 2

The second game of the season series at United Center also featured the second hat trick of the five-game set between the two teams.

Without several regulars in the lineup and at the end of a three-game trip, Nashville forward Austin Watson jammed in a loose puck in the crease to tie the contest at 2-2 early in the third period.

"I thought for the most part, our game was pretty good tonight," Preds defenseman Ryan Ellis said. "We deserved better in the third period. I think we hit three or four posts and they get their one chance and they score. That seems to be the way it's going right now."

Ryan Hartman took over in the final nine minutes of regulation, recording a natural hat trick with goals at 11:49, 18:46 and 19:28, and the last two goals being empty-netters.

"Our guys fought hard to tie it up [in the third]," Nashville Head Coach Peter Laviolette said. "At that point, it could've been 3-2, 4-2, 5-2 with the posts we hit, and it wasn't. It didn't drop for us."

"We came back, they scored first, we came back again, but we're fighting right now," Ellis said. "Hard work is probably the only thing that's going to get us out of this. It's frustrating, but we can only look to each other and hopefully get more effort and more consistency and find some success with that."

Video: NSH Recap: Arvidsson scores two goals in 5-3 defeat

March 4, 2017, at Bridgestone Arena: Blackhawks 5, Predators 3

The final meeting of the season series was likely the most exciting - a back-and-forth affair featuring the Predators rallying from a 3-1 deficit before Brian Campbell notched the game-winner with 65 seconds remaining to give the Hawks their seventh consecutive win.

Calle Jarnkrok answered 14 seconds after Jonathan Toews's goal had put Chicago up by two goals, making the contest 3-2 in favor of the Hawks after 40 minutes. Viktor Arvidsson scored his second of the game at 4:13 of the third to knot the score, and the teams traded chances for practically the rest of regulation, until Campbell's late goal on Juuse Saros.

"I thought our guys played extremely hard," Nashville Head Coach Peter Laviolette said. "Our guys were ready to play, but [Chicago] is a class team that is able to turn their game around if it doesn't start the way they want. They have the potential to take a start like that and turn it into a game where they're competing and playing at a high level, and they did that. From there, we knew it was going to be a tough fight the whole game, but it went back and forth. I thought our guys were ready to play, and we just hate the outcome."

"We have to find a way to get a point out of that game," Preds defenseman P.K. Subban said. "I think we played a really good game, but the details, we have to make sure in those moments of the game we are bearing down and understand the importance of it. You know good teams find a way to win, and they're a good team and they capitalized on some of our mistakes tonight."

Series Analysis: Four Things

Hawks Swagger: When you've won three Stanley Cups in the last seven years, moxie and confidence rise to the forefront. This postseason, the Hawks will be looking for their fourth championship in eight seasons, a dynasty that began in 2010 when Chicago defeated Nashville in six games in the First Round en route to taking out the Philadelphia Flyers in the Stanley Cup Final.

While parts of the personnel have changed dramatically, the core has remained untouched. Forwards Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa, along with defensemen Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson have been through it all for Chicago, bringing a proven, veteran lineup that few can rival.

Simply put, throw a wrinkle at the Hawks and they've likely seen it before and found out how to come out on the winning side. Nashville will be challenged to gain the upperhand in a game's pivotal moments, such as when the score is tied late or in overtime.

Special Teams: Preds Head Coach Peter Laviolette often says winning the special teams battle can lead to victory in a game or even a playoff series.

Nashville claimed the League's 16th-best power play (18.9 percent) and 15th-ranked penalty kill (80.9 percent) during the regular season, rankings that both finished ahead of Chicago (18.0 percent on power play for 19th; 77.7 percent on penalty kill for 25th).  

The Predators racked up five power-play goals during the season series, including three in an Opening Night win. Nashville also led the NHL in shorthanded goals with 12 in 2016-17.

With the Preds' offense on the power play starting with Roman Josi and P.K. Subban, if the Preds defensemen can exploit the Hawks suspect penalty kill, Nashville could steal at least one game in the series due to their conversion with the man advantage.

Home Ice Advantage: Historically, clubs with home-ice advantage in the playoffs emerge as the series winner, but the Blackhawks have taken that stat to another level.

Under Head Coach Joel Quenneville, Chicago has held home ice for 12 series. They've won 11 of them, with the lone series loss coming in 2014 in overtime in Game Seven to the Los Angeles Kings, that season's eventual Cup winner.

This is the third time Nashville and Chicago will meet in the playoffs, with the Blackhawks holding home ice two out of three times. The Preds won Game One at United Center in 2010, earning a split in the opening two games; something the Hawks turned around and did in Nashville in the 2015 meeting.

With four of the potentially seven games being hosted at United Center, the Preds must take at least one of the opening two games in Chicago to avoid creating a perilous path for themselves.

Healthy at the Right Time: Injuries forced the Preds defensive corps to only play a limited number of games together as cohesive group, due to Roman Josi, P.K. Subban and Ryan Ellis missing extended periods of time.

Nashville's blue line has finally healed over approximately the last month of the season with the team's top unit of six defensemen logging the minutes the Preds coaching staff envisioned prior to the 2016-17 campaign. Since March 15, Ellis (4g-4a), Josi (1g-6a) and Subban (2g-3a) have outscored most of the members of the Hawks defensive group with Brent Seabrook (0g-6a) and Duncan Keith (1g-5a) also cracking the Top 50 in blue line scoring in the NHL.

Offense from the blue line is arguably the catalyst for Nashville's success and the Predators have to be pleased that their six-man unit has been producing at a high level. The Preds will need their defense plunging into the offensive zone like a fourth forward to throw the Hawks' defensive system off balance.

Video: CHI@NSH: Subban's power-play blast ties game at 1

Moment of the Series: Oct. 14, 2016:

One half of perhaps the biggest trade in a decade, P.K. Subban, who was dealt to Nashville in exchange for former Preds Captain Shea Weber, slapped his first shot as Predators defenseman past Corey Crawford to tie the clubs' first meeting of the season. Subban flashed one of his iconic celebrations after the tally, gliding to center ice on one knee and fist pumping the air several times.

Game of the Series:

In early March, the Preds went toe-to-toe with the Hawks and the six consecutive wins Chicago brought with them to Nashville. The team's traded goals in the final minute of the second period and Viktor Arvidsson's second of the evening tied the game early in the third.

Unshaken, the Hawks pounced on the next opportunity they were given. Chicago Captain Jonathan Toews drew the attention of two Nashville defenders and sent a feed to d-man Brian Campbell, who solved Juuse Saros with a wrister from the low slot. Following an empty-net tally, Chicago left Nashville with a 5-3 win and their seventh triumph in a row.

X-Factors: Youth (Chicago) and P.K. Subban (Nashville)

It feels a little strange to talk about young players needing to step up when discussing the veteran-filled roster of the Blackhawks, but the salary cap restrictions of the modern era have caused the Hawks to rely on younger skaters, while keeping their core intact. A large youth class of Ryan Hartman, Vinnie Hinostroza, Tanner Kero, Dennis Rasmussen joined Artemi Panarin as players with under three years of experience who have shined at different times for the Hawks this season.

Can their success continue in the pressure-packed moments of the Stanley Cup Playoffs?

Following his return from a 16-game absence due to an upper-body injury, the Preds have caught glimpses of the superstar player they acquired in the offseason. P.K. Subban collected points in bunch down the stretch in the regular season, as he worked to fully acclimate himself within the Nashville lineup.

But is there another level Subban can reach in the playoff this year? He's done so before in Montreal, notching 38 points in 55 career playoff games, including four power-play goals in a single postseason during the Canadiens run to the Eastern Conference Final.

Whether it's by sending a teammate in on a breakaway with a long-range pass or blasting a shot home on the power play, Subban at another level in the postseason could be the exact factor the Preds need to push them over the top.

History:

The Predators and Blackhawks have met twice before the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Chicago has defeated Nashville twice in the First Round, before going on to win it all later that season.

Nashville was the No. 7 Seed in 2010, when a young Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane led Chicago past Nashville in six games and to their first Stanley Cup in 49 years. More recently, the clubs faced off in 2015 with Nashville hosting as the No. 2 seed in the Central Division. The Hawks rallied from three goals down to take Game One in double overtime at Bridgestone Arena and later won all three contests (including Game Four in triple overtime) at the United Center to win the series in six.

Colin Wilson and Pekka Rinne are the two players from the 2010 series who remain on Nashville's roster. The majority of the club who took part in the 2015 matchup, including Nashville Head Coach Peter Laviolette, remain with the Preds to this day.

The 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs schedule is expected to be released Sunday evening. Games Three, Four and Six* (*if necessary) will be played at Bridgestone Arena.

For tickets, click here. For all playoff info, including plaza party details and giveaways, click here.

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