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April 16, 2010
NHL Playoffs, First Round
Chicago Blackhawks vs. Nashville Predators

by Andrew Rothstein

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Chicago vs. Nashville

The Chicago Blackhawks have won fourteen division titles and three Stanley Cups since their inception into the NHL in 1926. When you think of the team from the Windy City, you think of the Original Six, their rivalry with the Detroit Red Wings and their current superstars. On the other hand, you have the Nashville Predators- a franchise from an atypical hockey town that began just over a decade ago in 1998. The Predators have yet to win the Stanley Cup, have not won a conference championship and have zero division titles. But what makes this matchup so compelling, besides their completely opposite histories, is that these two teams are division rivals. There's nothing like a division rivalry come the postseason when everything is on the line. This is the series of David versus Goliath; the arguable NHL favorites against a team that should just be happy to have made the second season. Are we in for another Music City Miracle?

Chicago Offense vs. Nashville Defense

Chicago Offense GVT: +28.1 (Rank: 4th in NHL)

Nashville Defense GVT: +9.2 (Rank: 6th in NHL)

Nashville Goaltending GVT: -4.8 (Rank: 18th in NHL)

The Chicago Blackhawks have a very dangerous offense that performs well at even strength. Chicago managed to score an impressive 179 goals in 5-on-5 situations, which placed them ahead of the potent offenses in Vancouver, San Jose and Pittsburgh. The first line for Chicago of Patrick Sharp (14.0 GVT), Jonathan Toews (16.0 GVT), Marian Hossa (14.2 GVT) will be able to spread the puck around and keep Nashville's defense guessing. The 'Hawks first line also knows how to create opportunities for scoring: neither of the three skaters on the first line has lower than 31.0 shots for per 60 minutes while on the ice. Chicago also has another advantage on offense that many teams in the postseason don't have: depth. With a second line of Patrick Kane (17.8 GVT), Dave Bolland (1.6 GVT) and Kris Versteeg (8.1 GVT), Nashville will constantly find itself under pressure. It's no wonder the 'Hawks lead the league in shots for per game with 34.1, and this is coming from a team that doesn't trail opponents often (which tends to lead to a rise in shots for).

The Nashville defense has been very good this season: they’ve allowed the eighth fewest shots per game (29.2) and have allowed the tenth fewest goals (144) of all teams throughout the National Hockey League. With Rinne (.911 SV%, 6.5 GVT) and Ellis (.909 SV%, 2.1 GVT) providing solid, but not spectacular goaltending, the Predators will rely on their top defenders for keeping games to low scoring affairs. Ryan Suter, Shea Weber, Dan Hamhuis and Kevin Klein are the only four defensemen to have faced above average quality of competition throughout the year, so it will be up to them to shutdown a very good offense.

Advantage: Chicago Blackhawks

Nashville Offense vs. Chicago Defense

Nashville Offense GVT: -8.2 (Rank: 18th in NHL)

Chicago Defense GVT: +33.8 (Rank: 1st in NHL)

Chicago Goaltending GVT: -14.2 (Rank: 27th in NHL)

The Predators have been known the last couple of years for their great defense, but it's the other side of the puck that could decide whether this series ever gets interesting. If Chicago begins to break down Nashville's defense and starts scoring at will, would Nashville be able to keep up without a dynamic offense- probably not. The Predators were eleventh in the NHL at even strength with 151 goals and twelfth with 30.6 shots per game- those numbers aren't bad if you plan on playing the Ottawa Senators in the first round, but they're certainly not good if your opponent is the Chicago Blackhawks. The Predators first line of Colin Wilson (2.2 GVT), Jason Arnott (6.4 GVT) and Martin Erat (8.2 GVT) are certainly passable as a top line, and only Arnott has a shooting percentage below 10% this season, but it doesn't figure to be enough against the Blackhawks' blueline.

It's not only Chicago's offense that has plenty of depth. The 'Hawks have plenty of quality skaters on defense as well with Norris Trophy candidate Duncan Keith (20.8 GVT), defensive defenseman Brent Seabrook (10.0 GVT), and the under the radar Niklas Hjalmarsson (6.0 GVT) on the roster. While the talented puckhandling and defensive skills of the expensive Brian Campbell (11.7 GVT) will be missed thanks to Alexander Ovechkin, the 'Hawks defense shouldn't be impacted significantly. One of Chicago's netminders, Cristobal Huet (.895 SV%, -7.5 GVT), is arguably the worst player on his team and Antti Niemi (.912 SV%, 8.8 GVT) isn't likely to be much better in the long-term. Having a great defense in front of Huet and Niemi, in addition to going up against a medicore to slightly subpar offense should make things easier on the French and Finnish netminders for at least the first round.

Advantage: Chicago Blackhawks

Chicago Power Play vs. Nashville Penalty Kill

Chicago Power Play GVT: +2.3 (Rank: 9th in NHL)

Nashville Penalty Kill GVT: -12.5 (Rank: 28th in NHL)

On both sides of this special teams matchup, there is a huge mismatch. However, with Brian Campell's second highest 2.85 minutes of ice time per 60 minutes on the power play along with his 3.41 points per 60 minutes on the power play removed from this series, the sides come closer to even, though not by much. Jonathan Toews, who had 2.23 goals on the power play per 60 minutes, will be the one to watch. If he can get a few wristers past Rinne on the man advantage, it will be a bad sign for Nashville.

Nashville's penalty-killing unit was simply awful this season. Dan Hamhuis, who saw the top penalty killing minutes with 2.42 minutes of penalty-killing duties per 60 minutes, allowed 9.01 goals per 60 minutes while on the ice a man down. In contrast, Chicago's top penalty killer Duncan Keith only saw roughly half that amount (4.82 goals allowed per 60 minutes on the penalty kill).

Advantage: Chicago Blackhawks

Nashville Power Play vs. Chicago Penalty Kill

Nashville Power Play GVT: -4.2 (Rank: 25th in NHL)

Chicago Penalty Kill GVT: +11.5 (Rank: 3rd in NHL)

It just get's worse for Nashville. The Predators have an anemic power play unit and that's being nice about it. With what will most likely be very few scoring opportunities for the Predators at even strength, they'll have to take advantage of every single power play that arises just to hang with Chicago. Shea Weber, who saw a team leading 3.33 minutes of ice time per 60 minutes on the power play had 0.94 goals per 60 minutes on the man advantage this year. That will need to improve signifcantly in a short time if the Predators plan on doing some damage in this series.

Chicago's above average power play unit is only second best among both special teams groups. Duncan Keith (2.88 power play minutes per 60) and Brent Seabrook (2.83 power play minutes per 60) will do their best on the penalty kill to shutdown Weber and the rest of Nashville's power play unit. That should be more than enough for Chicago.

Advantage: Chicago Blackhawks

Season Series

The Chicago Blackhawks posted a 4-2-0 record against the seventh seed Predators this year. Nashville was outscored by a respectable 15-12 and did a good job of staying in the majority of their games with the 'Hawks this year. These teams last met all the way back in December, where Chicago defeated Nashville in back to back games by scores of 4-1 and 5-4.

Advantage: Chicago Blackhawks

Injuries and Intangibles

The Brian Campbell injury would have been a bigger deal if Chicago lacked depth, but they don't so this shouldn't be a huge negative for the Blackhawks. Kim Johnsson is still out with concussion-related symptoms and there is no timetable for his return. Troy Brouwer of Chicago as well as Nashville's Joel Ward and Patric Hornqvist are all probable for tonight, while Predators defenseman Denis Grebeshkov is questionable.

While the Blackhawks are a young team, they went deep into the postseason just this past year. Nashville, despite being a young franchise, has been to the first round of the playoffs several times in the last few years.

Advantage: Even

Prediction

This is a very difficult matchup for the Nashville Predators. Out of each of the four first round matchups in the Western Conference, this might be the easiest series to call. Puck Prospectus has Chicago with a 69% chance of winning this series, with only Washington-Montreal (79% in favor of Washington) as being a greater mismatch. If Nashville could continue to play outstanding defense, get a fluke four to seven game performance from Rinne, dramatically overachieve on special teams and put up a ridiculously high team shooting percentage or shoot unbelievably high quality shots, then they'd have a chance to win this series. If not, reality will set in very quickly.

Prediction: Chicago Blackhawks in 5 games.

Andrew Rothstein is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Andrew by clicking here or click here to see Andrew's other articles.

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