Heading into April, Nashville was not a team most Hawks fans were thinking about. The consensus was that the Hawks would draw L.A., Detroit, or Colorado in the first round. Nashville was considered to be one of those "outside chance" teams that could slide into 7th or 8th place.
Well, they did.
So who are these pesky Nashville Predators? Let's break them down.
In one word, the Nashville forwards can be described as "balanced". While Patrick Kane led the Hawks with 88 points in the regular season, the highest total for any Nashville player was an underwhelming 51 points, shared by Steve Sullivan and Patric Hornqvist.
The Predators offense lacks firepower, but tends to make up for it in effort. I know that's an awful cliche, but this group really does survive on winning board battles and playing hard in all three zones.
Hornqvist is a definite bright spot, as he not only leads Predators forwards in points, but also in plus/minus with a +18. Jason Arnott, Martin Erat, and JP Dumont are all solid forwards with scoring potential.
As a team, the Predators scored the least goals among all Western Conference playoff qualifiers. They lit the lamp 225 times, which is 46 times less than Chicago.
Overall, this is a group that isn't going to light up the stat sheet over the course of a season, but can certainly hurt you in a lot of different ways if given the chance.
The Predators defense is led by young studs Ryan Suter (U.S.A.) and Shea Weber (Canada). These names may ring a bell, as they both played key roles for their respective countries in the Olympics.
Weber is an excellent defenseman, and probably the best player on Nashville's roster. He possesses scoring ability, physicality, and responsibility in his own end. He led all Predators defensemen with 43 points.
Overall, this group is probably the strength of the team. Cody Franson, Dan Hamhuis, Kevin Klein, and Francis Bouillion provide depth for head coach Barry Trotz. From a series standpoint, I'd expect the Predators' defensemen to focus on physicality and taking the Hawks out of their game. Ryan Suter agrees: "They have so much firepower, so you have to grind it out against them. It's important to keep the puck down in their end and try to grind it out on their half of the ice; try to keep the puck away from their skill guys as much as possible."
Opposing Antti Niemi for Nashville will be Pekka Rinne. He had a solid 32-16-5 record in the regular season to go along with a 2.53 GAA and .911 Save %. Statistically, Niemi has Rinne beat in every category. Niemi also has superior talent in front of him, and in his rookie season, it's difficult to judge these two netminders against each other.
One thing the two goalies have in common is their home country of Finland. Recently, Niemi was asked if he had ever played against or beaten Rinne head to head in Finland. Niemi's response: "Yes."
Keep that confidence, Antti.
While Nashville is expected to play defense-first hockey vs. Chicago, special teams is where they could potentially get exposed very quickly.
The Predators' penalty kill struggled all season, ranking ahead of only the Islanders and Maple Leafs at 77.1%.
The power play wasn't much better, as the Preds converted on only 16.4% of their chances, ranking them 24th in the NHL.
This is positive news for the Hawks, who have had their own power play struggles at the end of the season. One thing to keep in mind despite all of this is that the Hawks power play was average last season, and then exploded in the playoffs. That same thing could happen to either of these teams this season.
Don't let his lack of a neck fool you. Nashville head coach Barry Trotz is one of the most underrated coaches in hockey. That's an overused term, but all Trotz does is win with what he has. What he usually has....isn't much.
The Predators, unlike the Hawks, have financial issues to worry about, and I'm not talking about the salary cap. Nashville simply doesn't have the money to bring in the league's best talent. The fact that Trotz has guided this franchise to the playoffs in five of the last six seasons is impressive in itself.
With that said, Trotz doesn't hesitate to play a very boring style of hockey. His team isn't as good as the Blackhawks, and he knows it. Because of this, be prepared to see a lot of the trap. Remember games 3 and 4 of the Vancouver series last year? The Canucks tried to get an early lead, and then sit on that lead until the time dripped off the clock. Expect the same from Trotz in this series, because trying to beat Chicago at their own game simply will not work.
I think the Hawks take this series in five games, winning Games 1, 2, 4, and 5 with Nashville feeding off the energy of their home crowd and winning Game 3.
This prediction assumes that the Hawks team we know and love shows up. If the Hawks team from March shows up, they WILL lose this series. No question. Nashville is exactly the type of team that could capitalize on an out of sync Hawks team.
Luckily, I think the Hawks are ready to go. They looked terrific in the final two weeks of the season, and getting Brian Campbell back soon will be a big shot in the arm.
Today after practice, defenseman Brent Seabrook told the media "We're ready to play. We're all rested and ready to rock."
-JT (Follow me on Twitter @JTalarico328)