It's been two years since the Nashville Predators have played in a playoff contest. Honestly, I would have thought it was 10.
I consider myself a fan of the game of hockey above all else. While my passion for the Predators is surpassed by few, my devotion to the game itself sits at the forefront. I can watch a hockey game at any level, involving any participants, in any circumstance. It doesn't matter if I have no personal attachment to the teams involved, I can usually pick one to cheer on. With all of that said, it's a hollow enjoyment when the playoffs roll around and the Predators aren't involved. With a week to wait for tonight's game after the conclusion of the regular season, a child-at-Christmas anticipation building, I've had a lot of time to reflect upon what the Preds will need to do to win, and also the things that if they are to do, they will most certainly LOSE the series. I've also gained a healthy(or is it unhealthy) dislike for Chicago Blackhawks fans and media. For a team not far removed from the basement of the Western Conference, they are carrying themselves with a new-money swagger and cockiness that for some reason really gets under my skin. I've seen Nashville characterized by more Chicago-based pundits and fans than I can even count as a feeble, trap-oriented team that fluked their way through the regular season, only to serve as cannon fodder for the high-flying Hawks offense. With each self-aggrandizing editorial, my urge to humble Chicago boiled over. Needless to say, I'm relieved that the day has finally arrived, and I can put out the fires raging in my brain.
Let's start by looking at what the Predators will need to focus on, in order to win this series. Chicago is characterized as an offensive juggernaut, not unlike the Washington Capitals. This is a deserved label, given that they lead the Western Conference in goals per game, goals scored, and goal differential(a staggering +62). However, the flip side of the GD coin is that unlike the Capitals, they're actually quite strong in all three zones, living near the top of the league in goals against for the entire season. This starts and ends with puck possession. The opponent can't score goals if they can't get and keep the puck. This philosophy has been in place for the Blackhawks for two seasons, and it's one that they operate with great success. It starts in the defensive zone, where they can showcase one of the most mobile, accurate-passing backends in the league. There isn't a bad passer in their defensive ranks, and they're trained to gain control of the puck, and waste no time transitioning through the neutral zone. They're not content to merely chip the puck out and hope to win possession between the blue lines. Their passing is very methodical and precise. There's always a target on the other end of their scope. This leads to a high number of quick and odd-man rushes. They can switch between defensive and offensive mode in a matter of seconds. Many times, a scoring chance in their defensive end results in a goal down at the other end. That speed of transition is deadly, and it's the foundation of their attack.
If Nashville is to succeed and win the series, they must take every measure to neutralize that attack. An active stick on the forecheck, and hard puck-pressure to disrupt those outlet passes and neutral zone transport is crucial to offsetting the speed and precision of their attack. They're not as big as teams the Predators have struggled with in the playoffs in the past; physical play becomes a necessary element to disrupt their offensive flow. The proverbial "head on a swivel" approach is key as well, given the speed with which the Hawks can reverse the ice. In addition, since the defense is so focused on getting the puck up ice and back into attack mode as quickly as possible, disruption of that transition can lead to turnovers, and thus goals. They have a young, unproven goalie in Antti Niemi. While Niemi has played well since taking over for the beleaguered and much-maligned albatross Cristobal Huet, a large part of that is due to the defense of the Hawks limiting the amount and quality of offensive chances he's had to face. The Predators cannot expect to set up shop in the Blackhawks' end, hoping to cycle until the perfect opportunity arises. Any goals Nashville scores will be of the dirty variety, and the result of shooting whenever possible and going hard to the net. In the defensive end, the Preds will need to focus on emulating the 'Hawks' approach: get the puck out as quickly and efficiently as possible. Nashville can at times be guilty of making too many passes in the defensive zone, much as they are inclined in the offensive zone. Chicago's forwards will be all over that type of play, and with their skill, it won't be long before pucks start finding their way behind Rinne. Speaking of Rinne, the defense needs to allow him to see as much as possible. The Blackhawks use their bigger forwards, particularly Dustin Byugflien(who is filling in at D for the moment, but still playing this role) and Andrew Ladd to screen the goaltender and bang in garbage. Nashville must be cognizant of those guys, and careful not to become part of the screen or even a deflective object in doing their job of clearing the crease. Another potential danger is being too set on blocking shots. There is a lot of patience in Chicago's forward corps, and they will exploit a forward or defenseman who goes down to block a shot, taking himself completely out of the play. Again...if Rinne sees it, he will most often stop it. Focus on giving him that advantage.
As much as there are many things that the Preds must focus on if they are to win, there are an equal amount of habits they CANNOT fall into. As described above, the Blackhawks are a tenacious puck-possession team. They create a lot of turnovers, and the longer you take to make a decision or a play, the higher the probability that they're going to take the puck from you becomes. The Predators must NOT fall into the trap of making too many passes, at either end of the ice. In the offensive zone, the Chicago D is too good at stripping the puck and blowing it back up ice. The shots need to be quick and plentiful. Giving the defense too much time to establish themselves and their positioning will curtail any offensive momentum we can build up. They play a similar style in the offensive zone. You never possess the puck for long, when they're attacking. The puck needs to be up and out with little hesitation. The Predators sometimes have the tendency to forgo a clear outlet in favor of cycling the puck back behind the net, hoping for a "better" transition. Every second the puck stays in the defensive zone is a ticking time bomb.
Part of what has made the Predators a success this year is that they've managed to attain a level of discipline unseen in any Preds teams of the past. A complete inability to stay out of the box was a major factor in their prior defeats. This diligence has to remain throughout the playoffs if Nashville is to succeed. The combination of Chicago's firepower on the PP combined with Nashville's inconsistent PK is a recipe for defeat. If the Predators can ensure that these games are played predominantly 5 on 5, and capitalize on whatever PP chances they do get, this becomes a very winnable series.
I said to my wife, when our first-round draw was determined, that there was one thing that could determine the winnability of this series. If we could overcome that first hurdle, I had utmost confidence that we could and would win the series. We need to win one of the first two games in Chicago, preferably the first. The United Center is known as one of the loudest, rowdiest buildings in the league. The Predators need to do their best to neutralize that element of home ice advantage as quickly as possible. If they can come out hard, to the fast start that has eluded them in the final weeks of the regular season, they can seize momentum. On the other hand, if they allow the Blackhawks a shooting gallery in the early going, resulting in an early 2 or 3 goal lead...they will be hard-pressed to assert themselves, contending with both the crowd and an energized young Blackhawks team.
I've said since about the midpoint of this season that I believe the 2009-2010 are the best built team we've ever iced. There may not be as much skill as the 2005-2007 version. They may not be as physical or gritty as the 02-04 version, but they combine those elements in a way that none of those teams ever did. They may lack the sheer skill of Patrick Kane or Marian Hossa, but they can truly ice 4 lines that are responsible defensively, but also able to chip in a timely goal. With four lines contributing, and hopefully an elevation from some forwards who struggled a bit this season(as the old adage says, your best players have to be your best players), I think the Predators can take this series.
Preds in 6. Book it.