The second round picture for the Nashville Predators became a little clearer last night, when the Los Angeles Kings knocked out the Vancouver Canucks in game 5 of their first-round series, much to the delight of everyone on the planet outside of Vancouver. In doing so, the St Louis Blues were guaranteed the highest remaining Western Conference seeding, and with the Kings as the de facto lowest, their rendezvous was guaranteed. This really makes for an ideal situation: if there are two teams that the Predators should be the least eager to see, it’s the LA Kings and the St Louis Blues. So, let’s grab the popcorn and revel in the fact that these two can beat each other up in what’s hopefully a long, draining series.
Meanwhile, though we know who the Predators will NOT face, there’s still a question about who it WILL be. The Phoenix Coyotes currently lead the Chicago Blackhawks in their series 3-2, with game six tonight in Chicago. The Nashville Predators will be paired off with the winner of this final remaining Western Conference series.
While either opponent likely provides a better matchup than either the Kings or Blues, I feel rather emphatically that the Blackhawks are the team to hope for.
This will primarily be a discourse centered on X’s and O’s, but I’d be remiss to not at least acknowledge a couple of “philosophical” points. First, the sheer mention of round 1, game 5 of the 2010 playoffs still sends chills down my spine. The opportunity to exorcise that particular demon once and for all is truly appealing. I’m guessing Martin Erat thinks so, as well.
Secondly, if finally knocking off the ever-present, ever-villainous Detroit Red Wings was like cutting the head off of the Central Division dragon, taking out the Blackhawks would be like cutting off its tail as some sort of sick trophy. Defeating the Red Wings imbued the Preds with a sort of street cred that they’ve never really had. Spunky underdog, blue collar yeomen– these titles carried them past the Ducks last year, but no one was really all that surprised when they were batted about by the Canucks in the second round. A step in the right direction for the lovable Predlies, but ultimately the prophecy was fulfilled when they went out a round later than normal. This season, that’s not the case. It was one thing to be favored against a storied Original 6 juggernaut like the Red Wings, but a sizable contingent still felt that the Nashville thing to do would be to disappoint and fall. A lot of questions were answered, and several reputation points were garnered when the Predators took care of business. Two in one postseason? Now we’re talking undeniable legitimacy.
Aside from these mental factors driving a preferred matchup with the Chicago Blackhawks, the on-ice arguments are many and varied, as well.
Stylistically, the Phoenix Coyotes have been assembled and plotted in the image of the Nashville Predators. It’s difficult not to like and admire an overachieving low-budget team, a frequent punching bag for those occupying the upper lofts of the NHL caste system. Bad attendance, frequent relocation rumors– it’s a story pulled straight from the darker days of Nashville Predators history. With a lot of the same constraints that the Predators have contended with in years passed, the Coyotes brought in a guy that’s essentially Barry Trotz with more hair and more neck. Dave Tippett’s philosophy is as parallel to the Nashville model as the franchises’ similar “do more with less” mantra. A mobile defense, quick forwards, catch-you-off-guard breakouts and counter-attack based offense are trademarks of both the Trotz and Tippett ethos. Historically, these defensively-oriented systems have given the Predators fits. Like in the old Nintendo “Mega Man” series, who could provide a bigger challenge to Mega Man than…Dark Mega Man? There’s no surprising the Coyotes, there’s no tricks to pull that they haven’t seen–because they employ many of the same surprises and tricks, themselves. While the Coyotes aren’t quite as deep as the Preds up front, they have enough punch in the top six from Radim Vrbata, overtime wizard Mikkel Boedker, the ageless Ray Whitney, and blue-collar leader Shane Doan to make opportunities count. Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson are two legitimate young superstars that can have the puck up ice on a breakaway when it was pinned safely behind their net only a fraction of a second before. Mike Smith played about as well down the stretch as any goaltender in the league, including a supernatural three game stretch where he posted back-to-back-to-back shutouts to propel the ‘Yotes into the playoffs.
Conversely, the Blackhawks, like the Red Wings, rely on an attacking, rushing style offense that depends on the ability to traverse the neutral zone unfettered and gain a clean zone entry. While their weapons are potent, “grit” isn’t typically an adjective attached to players like Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp. The fact that the Predators were able to marginalize another team that’s built in a similar manner is somewhat encouraging, especially since I don’t think the Blackhawks are even as effective or experienced at this style of play as Detroit. If the Predators can box out the ‘Hawks as effectively as they did the Wings, I think you’ll see a similarly short series. Considering that the Blackhawks could be without their best all-around player and noted Pred-Killer Marian Hossa for an extended period, and the odds are even more in the Predators’ favor. I would expect to see similarly-unfolded games to those in the Red Wings series: a perhaps disparate shot total, with the true scoring chances far more indicative of the game. While Rinne made the saves he needed to, it’s tough to say that he honestly wasn’t called on to be all that great against the Red Wings, because the top 4 kept shots to the outside and from low percentage areas of the ice, also clearing rebounds before they could become dangerous. Games with the Blackhawks would likely be similar, with mostly smaller forwards that would struggle to grind out chances against our bigger, physical defense.
On the defensive side of the puck– uh…there’s not much to speak of, for the Chicago Blackhawks. Outside of the Keith\Seabrook pairing, the defense is inexperienced and inconsistent. While some teams could get away with a weaker defense due to a solid goaltender, the Blackhawks instead have the worst goaltender in the playoffs, if not the entire NHL in Corey Crawford. He’s failed to make a big save at any time throughout round 1, and the Predators declared a comfortable ownership of him throughout the regular season as well. So– in review– swiss cheese defense combined with Goldberg-from-the-Mighty-Ducks-Movies-Before-Julie-the-Cat-Gaffney-Challenged-and-Usurped-the-Position-from-Him goaltending– and I’m not too worried.
While it’s unwise to take any opponent too lightly, I just see too many weaknesses in the Blackhawks that I think could be exploited by the way the Predators are built, this season. Conversely, the Coyotes, similar to the Kings, are built in such a way that nullifies a lot of the advantages the Predators would be typically have. On top of all of that, the travel is certainly more favorable when playing Chicago– the dreaded long flights and late starts in Phoenix are avoided. Finally, while home ice seems to be a curse for a lot of teams this year, and while the Predators were able to make the best of their time on the road in Detroit, it’s nice to have that particular advantage in your pocket, should a game 7 become necessary. The Predators would have it versus the Blackhawks, but not the Coyotes.
Of course, pending the outcome of tonight’s game, like the rest of you, I’m sure I’ll suddenly be able to give one hundred reasons why the Coyotes are a great matchup for the Predators, afterall.