Hawk Talk: Keys to Beating the Blackhawks

152801.jpg

Hawk Talk: Keys to Beating the Blackhawks

Thursday, April 15, 2010
4:53 p.m.

By Brett Ballantini
CSNChicago.com

Few pundits have given the Nashville Predators much of a chance to win their quarterfinal series vs. the Chicago Blackhawks. But the set shapes up to be much closer than people think. Here are 10 ways Nashville can advance past the Hawks:

Been Caught Stealing: Nashville absolutely must take Game 1 at the United Center. A win, be it in rowdy rout fashion or something more in the Predators style of smash-and-grab, accomplishes much beyond taking a 1-0 lead and nullifying Chicagos home-ice advantage. It would be the first road playoff win in 11 tries for the Nashvilleans, but bigger still, it would immediately cast doubt in the minds of the Blackhawks. The Hawks are no patsy and will not shrivel up in the face of adversity, as they proved in the first two rounds of the 2009 postseason. But given the contrast in playing styles, the Preds swooping in and mouth-punching away Game 1 while skating in the rowdiest building in the NHL would offer ample evidence that their style can and will win over Chicagos faster-tempo and puck possession. A decisive enough winsay, like Nashvilles Dec. 4, 4-1 triumph in Chicagocould also trigger panic in Coach Joel Quenneville, whos been known to switch lines or pull goalies at the first whiff of a gentle breeze.
Working for a Living: OK, its a ridiculous clich to spell out working harder as a key to victory. But in the case of the Preds, hard work is essentially all they have going for them. There are no stars of note offensively, the defense is tight but not led by a Duncan Keith-type of ascendant superstar and their goaltender might be called Miikka more often than Pekka this series. Crucial to a Nashville series win will be four lines of energytheres no way for the Sabertooths to outshine the Hawks in terms of sheer skill or playmaking. Outworking any team in the NHL? Now, thats a can-do.

Self-Defense: Nashvilles defense, let by Ryan Suter and Shea Weber on the top pair and second-tier support from Cody Franson and Dan Hamhuis, knows its going to be pummeled. Not physically, but by puck after puck in an endless stream of Chicago shots. The Blackhawks control possession of the biscuit better than any team in the league, and it wouldnt surprise to see Chicago outshoot the Preds by 10 in most of these quarterfinal games. But while the Blackhawks shoot a ton, their offense can stagnatewhen 20 shots have hit the crease but only ones poofed the net, pressure builds, defensemen cheat forward, forwards dig a little too long in the corners, giveaways garble the offense and mismatches in the Chicago zone may commence. If Nashvilles youngish corps can play standup D with patience, it will yield odd-man rushes and provide demoralizing chances and tallies.

Immovable Object Meets Unstoppable Force: While by no means the key to the series, it will be interesting to see what gives when the Blackhawks are on the power play. Chicagos man-advantage has been looking awfully five-on-fivish, steadily fading to black since the Olympics, dwindling to an NHL 16th-best .177 by seasons end. On the Nashville side, the Preds stop a mere .771 with their penalty kill, which finished poorest among playoff clubs and 28th overall in the league. Its a battle of bad to worse, and if the Preds pounce on Chicagos Brian Campbell-less unit to get off their PK schneid, its the sort of little thing that could help turn a tight series. The early returnsnamely Quennevilles insistence on keeping Dustin Byfuglien at the point rather than double-parked in front of the netmay indicate advantage: Predators.

Sound the Horn: Yes, the Predators have five forwards who topped 15 goals this season, but as the only 30-goal scorer on the team, Patric Hornqvist will be facing some enormous pressure to put the puck in the net. Its almost unfair to place so much offensive dependence on a 23-year-old, as the Hawks run out Patrick Kane after Jonathan Toews after Marian Hossa, ad infinitum, but this is the playoffs, and only the big boys advance. Hornqvist will also have to step up his production vs. Chicago: In eight career games vs. the Blackhawks, the right wing has just one goal and is a minus-two.

Pick a Pekka: Its a battle of inexperienced Finnish postseason goalies in this series, and arguments can be made the advantage goes to the bigger (65!), more experienced Pekka Rinne. Both Rinne and Chicagos Antti Niemi have had very strong stretch runs, but Rinne has authored four shutouts since the Olympics. More troublesome for Chicago is that Rinnes size makes screening him a true challenge. A lack of offensive rebounding30 one-and-dones a nightwill not get the job done against a 65 praying mantis in a goalie mask. Look for the Blackhawks to crash the cage hardand again, when they do, Rinne saves could lead to mismatches in the Chicago zone.
Muting the Volume: Despite its youth, Nashville has proven it can beat the Blackhawks at the United Center, and decisively. Contrary to popular myth, strong visitors play after first puck drop can mute the Redshirt crazies and mellow down the most rambunctious building in the league.

Trapper Keeper: Nashville is a trap team, and if theres been a style of play that has given Chicago any sort of consistent trouble, its that kind of puckhawking. The argument can be made that the Hometown Heroes beat themselves more often than any opponents style stymies them, but it cant be denied that trapping teams give the Blackhawks bunchy underwear. If Nashville controls neutral zone play, its upset city.

Keep it Clean: The Preds are a physical team, yet led the league with just 8.7 penalty minutes per game. If that sort of controlled aggression can be maintained under the bright lights of the postseason, it will give Nashville another key advantage over a Chicago team that isnt afraid to play physical pucksbut doesnt always do so smartly.

Make-Believe: The season series was not as one-sided as a 4-2 Blackhawks advantage would have you believe. Chicago outscored Nashville just 15-12 in the six games, and if the first two contests of the season are tossed outa big if, but only in the last four did the Sabertooths accurately imitate their current style of roughneckingthen the advantage shifts down to the southern boys, 11-10. The two teams split the final four games. An upset in this quarterfinals series is not a pipe dream where fans will be forced to believe in miracles to process what theyre seeingwhat makes this a terrifying opening draw for Chicago is that the difference between the two clubs is razor-thin.

Brett Ballantini isCSNChicago.com's Blackhawks Insider. Follow him @CSNChi_Beatnikon Twitter for up-to-the-minute Hawksinformation.

Don Granato thrilled to be working with 'calm' Q again

Don Granato thrilled to be working with 'calm' Q again

For Don Granato, working with coach Joel Quenneville again was a chance he couldn’t refuse. Granato was a young coach with the Worcester IceCats, the St. Louis affiliate when Quenneville was the Blues’ head coach, and Granato learned plenty.

“The presence,” Granato said of Quenneville. “He has a really good presence, a calming influence.”

Wait. Quenneville calm?

“Without a doubt, calming,” Granato said. “It was almost like, ‘Hey, we’re in it together.’ And again, that’s the calm behind the scenes. He helps players and in that case he helped me perform as well as I could at that point. I think he’s good at that, because he’s a people person. That’s what I remember most. It’s more of a feel.”

Granato, who general manager Stan Bowman called “a great communicator,” is happy to be back in the Quenneville coaching fold this season. Granato will be watching the games from upstairs and will bring another voice to a Blackhawks group that is looking to take a fresh approach after a second first-round loss. Assistant coach Kevin Dineen said having another perspective will help.

“I’m looking forward to having Donny here,” Dineen said. “I like to talk. I sit there and talk through things. When you have someone working with you on a specific area of the game you can have those debates. It’s the same thing with players but you’re teaching. With another coach a good, healthy voice like that with Donny’s experience can be great for us.”

Where Granato will help most – and where that calm he learned from Quenneville could be most critical – is with the Blackhawks’ younger players. He’s worked with several already, including John Hayden and Nick Schmaltz, both of whom appreciated Granato’s tutelage.

“It’s so obvious he knows the game so well. I think coaches who know the game well and know how to teach the game well are hard to come by,” Hayden said. “It goes back to what I’ve said about meeting the coaching staff and the rest of the players. You feel comfortable in that regard. With coaching changes that process happens all over again, but I was fortunate to spend two years in the World Juniors with coach Granato, who did an incredible job with coaching and development.”

[MORE: Who goes where? Quenneville already plotting options] 

Granato will have a voice with the Blackhawks and will especially have an impact with their young players. The impact Quenneville made on him is still being felt.

“When he left St. Louis, he and my brother [Tony] coached together in Colorado. So the connection stayed. And I’ve always tried as a head coach to play the system that Joel played. So I’ve always tracked and watched the Hawks and the Avalanche and whoever Joel was playing,” Granato said. “That was fun, that’s the impact he had on me, from not only a presence, but the tactics, as well.

Who goes where? Quenneville is already plotting the options

Who goes where? Quenneville is already plotting the options

For hockey coaches, thinking the game never really stops. With the Blackhawks likely not to make many more changes, at least among the forwards, coach Joel Quenneville is already thinking about line combinations, especially with those top two lines.

“You’ve got [Nick Schmaltz] who can play center or can play wing. [Artem Anisimov] in the middle, he can play with [Patrick Kane] so you’ve got some options there. With [Patrick Sharp] coming back and [Brandon Saad] coming back you’ve got some looks up front, some continuity from history and reacquainted again with [Jonathan Toews] and Saader on the the line,” Quenneville said. “And Sharpie and Kaner is a possibility.”

Yeah, there are a few options, some of which changed after the Blackhawks re-acquired Sharp on July 1. How it all turns out come early October is still to be decided but players are ready to move up, down, to center or wing if necessary.

“I think about a lot of different possibilities with the Hawks lineup,” Sharp said at the Blackhawks convention on Friday. “Playing for Joel for as long as I have in the past, I know that combinations can get moved around quite a bit depending on the game, depending on the time of year and the way different guys are playing. That’s something I’m prepared for and something I’m looking forward to, as well. I had my best years playing for Coach Q, and I know wherever he puts me in the lineup is probably going to be best for me and for the team, as well.”

OK, but the possibility of playing with Kane again has to be enticing for Sharp, even if he doesn’t want to say so. Past chemistry, past success, for a team that’s still working in younger players and will look to avoid the constant line shuffling of the past two years, those things matter.

When Quenneville talked at the NHL Draft in late June, he said Schmaltz would likely get first crack at the second-line left-wing vacancy. But with Sharp’s return, coupled with no Dennis Rasmussen (not qualified) and no Marcus Kruger (traded to Vegas and then to Carolina), the Blackhawks may need Schmaltz more at center. Schmaltz liked the instant chemistry he had with Kane last season but that was at center, his more natural spot, and he’s fine going back there if necessary.

While the top line should stabilize with Saad’s return, the second line could be the one trying to figure things out at left wing this season. Artem Anisimov was “shocked and surprised” when Panarin was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets in June, but knows it’s a business and that adjustments will have to be made.

“I’m prepared for anything to come my way. I’ll try to work with anybody, coach Q puts on the left side,” he said. “We’ll work out what the best [combination] is going to be and the three of us will just go and play.”

“Every day you write down different combinations. You look at probability, the likelihood of who will be compatible with who,” Quenneville said. “So I think it will be fun trying to go through that process, not just on paper, but when you get them together and out there playing. We certainly have a lot of options up front.”