First-round preview: Chicago Blackhawks vs. Nashville Predators

The prospect of one team’s core winning four Stanley Cups is insane. The Blackhawks have an argument that, having won three Cups since 2010, this team is already on a pedestal with those hallowed faces and names that affect hockey fans in a physical and visceral way. And if they win this year, there will be no debate. They will have doubled the Cup total of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Wayne Gretzky had four. The most extraordinary part is that they have a decent chance to do it. The nucleus is playing tremendous hockey and they are healthy.

Still, the Blackhawks got an unfortunate first-round opponent. Relative to their collective talent, the Nashville Predators have underachieved. On paper they have forward depth, one of the best defensive groups in the NHL, and a solid goaltender. And their narrative is compelling because of raised expectations due to blockbuster trades they orchestrated.

Over the last 15 months what looked at first like perspicacious acquisitions have proven to be more complex. The addition of P.K. Subban means the Predators have four defensemen who can skate out of forechecking pressure and into scoring areas. That’s a huge advantage. Ryan Johansen is a 6’3”, 218-pound, 24-year-old center who finished the season with 47 assists, just outside of the top ten in the league. Sounds awesome. Yet, both Subban and Johansen have been slightly underwhelming in a Predators’ uniform. Subban hasn’t dazzled like he did with Montreal. He’s been fine, but when he unleashes the neutral-zone pyrotechnics and pirouettes, it masks the fact that he’s been more restrained with the Predators. Surrounded by more talent and in a new environment, it is understandable that he would be more deferential to his teammates and the system. Subban might regain his status as one of the NHL’s premier defensemen, but a new milieu affecting his impact is a dramatic reminder that context matters.

In the case of Johansen, he’s proven to be a very good passer, but his lack of scoring should be worrisome. If he can’t crack 20 goals a season, he needs to collect about 10 more assists to be considered a clear-cut No. 1 center. This is another case where a skilled supporting cast changes the dynamic. Johansen played all season with Filip Forsberg, an elite talent with a thundering shot. Additionally, Viktor Ardvidsson had a career year and scored 31 goals, and for much of the season he played on the opposite wing of Johansen and Forsberg. This led to Johansen taking fewer shots. When Johansen was with the Blue Jackets, he scored 33 and 26 goals in back-to-back seasons, posting over 200 shots in both years. This year, he submitted 154 shots. Sometimes James Neal would sub in at wing for Forsberg or Ardvisson.

This is problematic. Nashville has other determined, semi-skilled forwards in the quiver, but the talent is noticeably clustered around Johansen. So do the coaches think they need to surround Johansen with the best wingers to be effective and give full effort? That’s unclear, but shuffling the aces to the top of the deck leaves Nashville top-heavy when they don’t need to be. For what the Predators gave up for Johansen, he should be able to command a line with Craig Smith and Kevin Fiala.

Forsberg has the wherewithal to carve out space for his own shot; he doesn’t need Johansen dishing it to him. Mike Fisher would work just fine. This noxious, foggy oversight (or yielding to star players’ preferences) will bubble up and explode in the Predators’ face against the Blackhawks unless their first line is anything less than dominant and they decide to redistribute the high-end players.

The Blackhawks are great, again. Patrick Kane continues to stretch the limits of what is possible. The first several months, Jonathan Toews could not generate offense at the clip he is expected to; entering 2017 he had only 18 points. Over the next three months and the three games he played in April, he registered 40 points. Toews’ brand of self-reliance – seizing the puck from opponents, exerting his will through power and grace – manifested itself in an awesome way.

Artemi Panarin, Kane’s linemate and outlet for some of the pinpoint passes No. 88 delivers, finished with over 200 shots and 31 goals. Panarin isn’t just an incredible shooter; on a nightly basis, he showcases his ability to knife through the defense, change direction, and make the defense feel powerless. Sometimes the best method of possession is a player who can bring the defense to its knees. Kane and Panarin have mastered that spell. And when they are whipping the puck around the neutral zone and offensive zone, it strains the coverage and creates fissures in coveted scoring areas for the puck-handler and his teammates. There are few plays more thrilling than the drop pass for Kane or Panarin on a regroup in the neutral zone or just below it. The defense visibly recoils before the storm.

And that is also something striking about this series. While the Blackhawks had to reload again this season, and the superstars are well-compensated, somehow their forward depth and defensive group are not vulnerable. Chicago is a machine. The F1, no matter the line, creates havoc. The defense is patient with the puck and empowers the forwards to slash toward more fertile terrain. It has been astonishing to see the supporting cast coalesce into roses, again.

Journeyman Richard Panik has stepped in and become an important complementary scoring option. Ryan Hartman and Nick Schmaltz are young, but their instincts are good, and they have displayed an inventiveness with the puck under pressure that allows the Blackhawks’ offense to stay on the attack. That resourcefulness resulted in more goals for Hartman, but Schmaltz played with Kane and Toews at different points of the season, demonstrating that his anticipation and playmaking were of the necessary caliber. Marian Hossa keeps chugging away, and he is quite effective doing Hossa-like things in his present role. No. 2 center Artem Anisimov will be ready for the playoffs.

The Predators were a good possession team at even strength, less so when adjusted to 5 on 5 in close-game situations. That’s a nice quantitative metaphor for this series. On paper it looks like it could be close. The Predators’ top four defensemen have the speed and skill to match up with the Blackhawks’ forwards. Forsberg is a matchup problem for any team, and maybe the Predators can deploy a checking line of Colin Wilson-Colton Sissons-Craig Smith to try to aggravate and harass Kane’s line.

But that misses the point with the Blackhawks. All four lines can score. The defense flows beautifully into offense. There is good reason to belief Duncan Keith could stifle the Predators’ top line and still engineer offense. Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford will make the saves when they count, and if he needs Scott Darling to bail him out like he did last time against Nashville, Darling is waiting. This Blackhawks team is brutally efficient, and the Predators’ strength is more a mirage than an army.

Blackhawks in six

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