Thursday, April 15, 2010
By Brett Ballantini
As ascendant Stanley Cup favorites and critical darlings, most analysts see the Chicago Blackhawks quarterfinal series against the Nashville Predators as nothing more than an afterthought. And why not? The Hawks stitched together a superior regular season and potent 6-0-1 stretch run kick to sprint into the postseason. Here are 10 ways the Blackhawks can beat the Predators:
Puck Possession: Yes, this is the top bullet despite Chicagos wounded troops (hurry back soon, Soupy Campbell!). There is no greater key to Chicagos domination of the 2009-10 regular season than its ability on both ends of the ice to simply strongarm and suffocate the game by never letting go of the puck. Chicagos shot differential of 9.0 the third-biggest of any team in the post-lockout era and is a distinct measure of playoff success. Yes, Nashville has the potential to squeeze the juice out of the puck and demoralize opponents and fans alike with slowdown, Slurpee play. But the Hometown Heroes can simply go Globetrotter on teams, playing keepaway until daylight to the goaltender breaks; puck possession on Chicagos level is nothing short of a neck-snapper.
Antti-Dote: Sure, rookie netminder Antti Niemi has just 42 games of NHL experience under his belt. Yes, between his first run as a starter right before the Olympics break and Cristobal Huets utter abdication of the crease just a matter of weeks later, Niemi wasnt razor-sharp. And yes, rookie netminders whove sipped from the Cup are few and far betweenKen Dryden may be able to both out-argue and out-save Niemi even today. But listen, Niemi is a bad, bad Finn. He stole the blue ice from a veteran making close to 6 million per year, a guy who still ranks in the NHL all-time top 10 in save percentage. The rook finished second in the NHL in points percentage (.757), third in shutouts (seven, tied with his countryman counterpart in this series, Pekka Rinne) and fourth in goals-against average (2.25). And most importantly at this time of year, Niemi is unflappable. In coach Joel Quennevilles parlance, the rookie is laid-backish. That quality makes him goalie-wise beyond his 26 years.
By the Time They Get to Phoenix: Perhaps the Blackhawks can emulate the Phoenix Coyotes in their 3-2, Game 1 win over Detroit, as they took their poor power play unit and stung the Red Wings with three man-advantage goals. Aside from a nice streak at the turn of the calendar, Chicagos man-advantage looked awfully five-on-fivish for most of the season, to the point of slowly fading to black post-Olympics (dwindling to an NHL 16th-best .177 by seasons end). But on the flip side, Nashvilles penalty kill is a .771 embarrassmentthats the worst mark among playoff clubs and 28th overall in the league. In this battle of bad to worse, Chicago capitalizing with scores on those rare Predators penalties could help turn the series.
Defensive Domination: Without Campbell, the Blackhawks are weaker on D, of course. But the top four d-men, paired up as Duncan Keith-Dustin Byfuglien and Brent Seabrook-Niklas Hjalmarsson, have kept the ship afloat. Buff is a Seabrookian big body whose time served on offense over the past two seasons has served him well now that hes back on the blue line. Seabs and the Babyfaced Gangster both pack just enough puck-possession and big-hitting skills to form a pairing few opponents want to skate through. Nashville has a deep forward corps, but its not particularly skilled; down a key man or not, theres no reason the Hawks shouldnt stymie whatever is passing for offense south of the Mason-Dixon Line these days.
Home Cooking: The Blackhawks won the third-most (29) home games in the NHL in 2009-10 and in the United Center have an advantage like none other in the game. The UC has hosted the two dozen biggest indoor crowds of the entire NHL season, so no barn gets louder and less hospitable for opponents than Sweet Home Chicagos. Last year, the decibel level for the pregame national anthem alone was eardrum-bleeding. Its only going to get louder this season.
Be Cool: Chicago is well aware that the Preds play a lull game. It masquerades as bruising, old-school yawner pucks, but its really a series of traps, and by the time you take the ice off of your bruised cheek and look up at the JumboTron, youre down two with 10 minutes left. The Hawks have shown a tendency to play to the level of its opponent, and in the case of this matchup, against a team that sports inferior talent top-to-bottom, they cannot let this happen. For all the experience gained in last years surprising run to the NHLs final four and in a full season played out as hunted and not hunter, the Blackhawks are still young and subject to pressure. Nashvilles sole aim will be to bully the Hawks, frustrate them with physical play, and with the help of a fortunate puck dribble or two, cast growing doubt in the minds of the heavy favorites. The Hometown Heroes need to be cool, weather any slumps or mid-game stagnation and continue to play their ruthlessly efficient, puck possession game.
Stay Cool, Q: Quenneville played Cool Hand Q to the hilt this year, steadying his troops through the seasons ups and downs. But he does tend to be a touch paranoid when it comes to his lineshes quick to toss his players into a Lotto Hopper of lines when the offense goes a touch stale. When he panics at the sight of stagnant offense mid-game or drops a key cog three lines because of a single brain cramp, it doesnt inspire the troops. During the March skid that made the Redshirts look more AHL than NHL, the players said a lot of the right things, but boy howdy, there were some 10,000-mile stares being cast in the dressing room. Q needs to stay calm at the wheel and not give in to a game of 52-card pickup at the first downturn.
Fourteen Deep: The Blackhawks are outrageously deep on offense. The team was carried to a six-game win streak by its fourth line of Colin Fraser, Tomas Kopecky and Ben Eager, all of whom had been healthy scratches for at least one game earlier in the season. Bryan Bickell and Adam Burish, both who could contribute to fourth or even third lines on most any NHL team, appear likely to spend the quarterfinals watching in the press box. And in spite of major injuries to the defense, none bigger than the loss of Campbell for the quarterfinals, the Hawks have shifted on the fly and mostly retained their characteristic toughness and puck possessiveness.
Spreading the Wealth: The Blackhawks score a ton of goals (at least five-on-five, or shorthanded, heh) yet only Patrick Kane could be considered a team superscorer, topping 30 goals, 80 points and more than one point per game. But overall Chicago is a much more high-powered offensive team than Nashville, no matter how thin the O is spread: The Hawks have four players with more than 60 points, while no Sabertooth topped 51. Which means in parched or lulled time
Superstars Take Over: Despite any talk of spreading the wealth, the Blackhawks have a half-dozen playmakers superior to any Nashville skates, from the Big Red Cheese, Jonathan Toews, to the wizardry of Kane and Marian Hossa, the explosiveness of Kris Versteeg, the steady scoring of Patrick Sharp and the center of the line of defense, Duncan Keith. When times get tough, superstars step up. The closest forward Nashville has to a superstar is Patric Hornqvist, whos tallied all of one goal in eight career contests vs. Chicago. Any of the aforementioned Blackhawks could equal that with a single sneeze.
Brett Ballantini isCSNChicago.com's Blackhawks Insider. Follow him @CSNChi_Beatnikon Twitter for up-to-the-minute Hawksinformation.