The Nashville Predators (22-12-3) will play the Chicago Blackhawks (24-9-3) in a two day, home and away series that begins tonight in a Music City Bowl packed downtown, and ends tomorrow night at the United Center in Chicago. This update will serve as a preview for both games.
Surprisingly, these games have become a battle for the top of the Central Division and are the last two times the teams will meet during the regular season this year. Chicago is in first place in the Western Conference with 51 points and have a game in hand on the Preds who have 47 points and are in a tie for fifth in the West and are second in the Central.
The teams have met four times this year, each winning two games. On October 15, the Preds played a miserable game in which they only had 13 shots and lost to the Hawks 3-1. Nine days later the Preds were shut out by the Hawks in Chicago 2-0.
On October 29, Pekka Rinne shut out the Hawks 2-0 to give the Preds a home win in what I called the team's best effort of the season at the time. On December 4, the Preds won a huge road game in Chicago winning 4-1.
Both teams are having successful runs with the Preds going 14-4-2 in their last twenty and the Hawks going 15-4-1 in their last twenty. The Preds suffered a disappointing 4-1 loss at Vancouver on Tuesday in their last game out while the Hawks shut out the Wings 3-0 in Detroit on Wednesday.
In Tuesday's game the Predators lost Jerred Smithson for what may be a month with a hand injury when he blocked a shot on his second shift of the game on a penalty kill. The Preds are already without Jordin Tootoo who is recovering from a broken foot.
Andreas Thuresson has been recalled to Take Smithson's place on the roster. This is Thuresson's third recall of the year having played ten games with the Preds with two assists in earlier stints.
Pekka Rinne (14-6-2, 2.75, .905) will start for the Preds tonight meaning Dan Ellis (8-6-1, 2.76, .909) most likely will start on Sunday. It is unclear whether Christobal Huet (16-8-2, 2.05, .913) or Antti Niemi (8-1-1, 1.59, .937 with four shutouts) will start tonight.
Chicago has a bevy of scorers led by Patric Kane (12 goals, 26 assists), Duncan Keith (6,25), Patric Sharp (11,16) , Jonathan Toews (11,13), Kris Versteeg (10,10) and Dustin Byfuglien (10,3). The Hawks also have league's stingiest defense allowing only 2.0 goals per game.
Predators Keys to the Games
Predators Must Win One Game in Regulation...
With these games being the last two meetings of the year, the Preds do not want to lose ground to the Hawks who are four points ahead with a game in hand. A regulation win would insure that they would not lose any ground to the Hawks in this two game set. Any more than that would be considered outstanding as it would guarantee that he Preds would make up territory on the Hawks in their last meetings of the year.
Organizational Depth Tested...
The Predators need to not skip a beat with Thuresson replacing Smithson. When Jordin Tootoo went out, Nick Spalling filled in doing what he was asked to do in keeping the Barry Trotz system in tact. This will be Andreas Thuresson's chance to do the same thing. Smithson's shoes will be hard to fill as he has become a vital cog in the system this year since moving up to the second line.
Special Teams Turn-Around Needed...
The Predators special teams have been horrible this year with little sign of building any consistency on the power play (16.1%, 25th) or penalty kill (75.8%, 28th). This is the area where the team has the potential for the greatest upside in the second half of the season. Chicago is ranked second (87.0%) on the penalty kill and 14th (18.8) on the man advantage.
After the weekend series with the Hawks, the Preds will face divisional rivals St. Louis and Columbus on the road this week before returning home to play an improving Anaheim Ducks team at home next Saturday. This five game in eight nights stretch will tell much where the Preds are headed in the new year.
Buddy Oakes for PredsOnTheGlass