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Opposites Attract As Chicago Hosts Preds In Playoffs

By:
04/12/2010 12:33 PM - From chicagoblackhawks.com: (link)




This is truly the tale of two cities.

Chicago, the No. 2 seed is an odds-on favorite to win the Stanley Cup this season. The Blackhawks scored 271 goals, the third-highest total among the 16 playoff participants. They are loaded with name-brand players playing a high-tempo, puck possession game.

In fact, the only issue that could stop Chicago from being the last team left standing in the West is the team's instability in net.

Stability in net seems to be the only thing going for the Predators in this matchup. Nashville has been built to be a defense first, offense-second proposition and have lived up to that blue print this season.

The Predators have scored just 225 goals this season, more than half a goal per game less than Chicago. The Blackhawks had four players top 60 points, including Pat Kane, who had more than 80. Nashville didn't have a player top 51 points.

But the Predators have found a way to hang with Chicago this regular season, winning two games and losing three others by two or fewer goals. Chicago only managed 15 goals (to Nashville's 12) in the six-game series. So while these two teams couldn't be different stylistically, it should still be a very good playoff matchup.




You already know what
Patrick Kane (30 goals, 88 points), Jonathan Toews (25 goals, 68 points), Patrick Sharp (25 goals, 66 points) and Marian Hossa (24 goals, 51 points in 57 games) can do.

Toews, in fact, showed how good he is in pressure situations during the Olympics, where he was voted the tournament's best forward. We'll be able to measure Hossa's value to the Hawks in the postseason based on his experience.

Down the middle the Hawks are as good as any team in the West with Toews,
Dave Bolland, John Madden and Colin Fraser.

Andrew Ladd and Troy Brouwer have that net-front presence all good teams need, and while Kris Versteeg hasn't had near the kind of regular season that he did as a rookie he is the kind of player that can get hot in the playoffs. Madden's experience, including Stanley Cup rings from 2000 and 2003 with New Jersey, is something the Hawks didn't have last season.


There isn't a true gamebreaker among Nashville's fleet of forwards -- although second-year man Patric Hornqvist is trending in that direction -- but there is incredible depth.
 
In fact, the Preds have five forwards with more than 15 goals; but just two with more than 20. Not surprisingly, Nashville scored just 225 goals this season, the lowest total among the eight Western Conference qualifiers.
 
Hornqvist, who has made great strides in his game this season, leads the team with 30 goals and has been a true difference-maker. He has been supported by old standbys Martin Erat, Steve Sullivan and J. P. Dumont, who have all shown a propensity to score some serious goals at different points in their careers
 
All of those players are wingers, however. Up the middle, it is more about solid two-way play for the Predators. Veteran Jason Arnott is the team's top pivot, putting together another solid season -- 19 goals, 46 points -- despite being sidelined late in the year with a concussion. He is a proven playmaking with a talent for scoring opportune goals. Arnott and Erat have shown good chemistry as linemates in the past.
 
Marcel Goc, an Olympian for Team Germany, also has clicked at times with Hornqvist, a key cog for Team Sweden. Meanwhile, veteran David Legwand has been the anchor of a third line that also features vets Dumont and Joel Ward.
 
Nashville coach Barry Trotz believes in rolling his lines and the depth he has at is his disposal this time around makes the Predators a hard team to match up against.





The "D" took a hit when
Brian Campbell got buried into the boards by Alex Ovechkin on March 14 and broke his clavicle. Campbell would return if the Hawks advance in the playoffs, but his absence has caused some reshuffling.

Joel Quenneville recently put
Duncan Keith (69 points) with Dustin Byfuglien, who moved down from the right wing to play on the back end. The move paid dividends as the Hawks' top four, including Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson, took on a new look that appears just as mobile and even more powerful than it was before.

Byfuglien could either stay back or move up front depending on
Kim Johnsson's health.

"We like the size and the presence he creates in front of the net and we like his size in the back end as well," Quenneville said of Byfuglien. "He gives us a lot more options and he's useful in a lot of ways."


This is the unquestioned strength of this team -- and will be for a long time. Shea Weber and Ryan Suter are as good a one-two punch as you can ask for. As each showed in the Olympics, they are up to every conceivable task. Weber was a huge part of Team Canada's gold-medal victory and Suter played top-pair minutes for the Americans, who took home silver.
 
For Nashville, Weber and Suter make up for a lack of dominant scoring up front with timely contributions -- each has topped the 35-point mark -- and both eat up copious amounts of power-play time. Weber's 43 points led the team's defensemen, while Suter's 33 assists were tops among the blueliners.
 
And, while each see some penalty-kill time, Trotz relies on the more defensive-minded duo of Dan Hamhuis and Kevin Klein.
 
Trotz has also not been shy about using rookie Cody Franson, who has been quite the revelation, leading all rookies in plus/minus for much of the season and finishing a rookie-best plus-15. Franson is playing more than 14 minutes per game and three of his six goals this year have been game-winners.




The main criticism of the Hawks centered on the net all season, but
Antti Niemi is the guy because he's played better than Cristobal Huet throughout the season and definitely down the stretch when he went 6-0-1. He's a playoff newbie, but so was Cam Ward in 2006 and he helped Carolina win the Cup. Jean-Sebastien Giguere won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2003, his first postseason.

Pekka Rinne has apparently won the Predators' goaltending derby. The young Finnish goalie has seven shutouts this season -- a number topped only by New Jersey's Martin Brodeur and Ilya Bryzgalov of the Phoenix Coyotes -- and has shown the ability to win in a consistent manner.
 
The big knock against the 27-year old is his lack of postseason experience. He has yet to play one minute in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and has just one long AHL run under his belt. But Dan Ellis, the team's other option, is not much more experienced. He has made six Stanley Cup Playoffs appearances, winning just two.





Joel Quenneville has more than 500 wins in the regular season and 51 more in the playoffs. He's only missed the playoffs once as a head coach and he was an assistant on Marc Crawford's staff in Colorado when the Avalanche won the Stanley Cup in 1996.

Barry Trotz knows how to coach. He has been with the Predators since their inception and has guided the club to more than 400 victories. He knows his club's strengths and weaknesses and coaches to accentuate the former, while limiting the latter.

But can he coach in the playoffs?

That question must be asked now that Nashville has been bounced from the postseason in the first round in each of its four playoff appearances. And Trotz must find a way to answer it in the affirmative this time around.





With the firepower they have, you'd expect the Blackhawks would have a better than average power play, but they finished 16th at just 17.7 percent. But their penalty kill was exceptional with a 85.3-percent success rate good for fourth in the NHL.

Not surprisingly for a team that has trouble scoring goals, Nashville is not very good on the power play. In fact, only six teams are worse than their 16.4 conversion rate and five of those didn't make the postseason. Nashville's power play will have to be better in the postseason.
 
Its PK better be more effective as well. At just 77.1 percent, Nashville is the worst penalty-killing team in the playoff field. And, as we have all learned, an ineffective penalty kill paired with an anemic power play is no way to build a postseason juggernaut.




Dustin Byfuglien, Chicago -- A versatile player, Byfuglien could start this series on the blue line and finish it as a forward. He is fleet enough not to be a liability on the blue line -- especially on this Chicago team. But, it is up front where he can truly do some damage.

At 6-foot-4 and 257 pounds, Byfuglien is an imposing figure when he puts his mind to crashing the crease. The Preds don't have a ready answer if this young man decides to camp out on the doorstep of Rinne's crease.

At 6-foot-4 and 257 pounds, Byfuglien is an imposing figure when he puts his mind to crashing the crease. The Preds don't have a ready answer if this young man decides to camp out on the doorstep of Rinne's crease.

Patric Hornqvist, Nashville -- The Preds received a scare this week when Hornqvist was felled by a Shea Weber slapper in the penultimate game of the season. Hornqvist missed the regular-season finale and a few days of practice, but it appears he will be healthy for the Chicago series.

And, he'll have to be. Nashville will not be able to keep the high-powered 'Hawks at bay throughout the series, so they will need some goals. And, as the only 30-goal scorer on the Nashville roster, that pressure will fall squarely on the shoulders of this young Swede.




Blackhawks will win ... If Niemi stands tall, as he did down the stretch, and the Hawks don't get caught sleeping because you know Nashville is going to try to slow the pace of the game.

Predators will win ... If they trust in their depth. More than any team in the playoffs, Nashville is reliant on the all-for-one, one-for-all approach to achieve success. Sometimes, it can be trying to enter a game -- or a series -- with a wafer-thin margin of error; but Nashville has played the entire season under that scenario and found a way to achieve great success. Now, with both the bar and the stakes raised, they must trust in the game plan that delivered them to the postseason.


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