It is definitely a battle between the glass being half-full (or the Cup in this context), or it being half-empty for the Nashville Predators. If you had asked anyone in October if they’d take finishing second in the Central Division and having home-ice in the first round of the playoffs, they likely would have taken it on the spot without even playing the season if they could. Ask those same people in February the same thing and they would be very disappointed.
The Nashville Predators return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in three years, and will have home-ice advantage in a best-of-seven against the Chicago Blackhawks. Especially considering where the Predators were after 61 games, this is the worst-case scenario. Add to that the return of the great Patrick Kane to Chicago’s lineup just in time for Game 1 after a seven week absence to a broken collarbone, and the worst-case gets even worse.
After 61 games, Nashville was at a league-best 41-13-7, 89 points and six clear of anyone else in the NHL. You feared the inevitable slump, but it ended up far worse than that. Nashville closed the season a terrible 6-12-3, free-falling into second place in the division. The Preds also dropped their last six games, when the division championship was still attainable. Those are the negatives.
The positives would be the fact the Predators banked that many points in the first place and that everyone starts at 0-0 now, 16 wins needed for the Stanley Cup regardless of how many you did or did not win in the regular season. The division champion St. Louis Blues drew the best team in the entire league in this calendar year, the Minnesota Wild. So is drawing Chicago really the worst-case?
These teams met four times this season, but none since December, the ‘Hawks won three, two after regulation. Chicago is laden with stars from (likely the best player in the world) Jonathan Toews, to perhaps the most exciting in Patrick Kane, to the veteran skill of Marian Hossa and Brad Richards, the grit of Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith, and a Cup winner in Corey Crawford in goal. Coach Joel Quenneville is third all-time in wins, and has his name on the Cup twice. The assumption continentally is that Chicago will win, that they have to win.
But it is Nashville with the better record in this, their eighth trip to the playoffs in 16 seasons. Injuries piled up late in the season with Shea Weber, James Neal, Matt Cullen, and Roman Josi among those missing time. The hope is they are all healthy and ready to go. Pekka Rinne had a bit of a slump late, though is not the reason for their poor finish as a club. Filip Forsberg expectedly hit the rookie wall and slowed down late. Nothing that happened was wholly unexpected, but the length of it was alarming.
Few give Nashville a chance in this series and all the trends certainly point Chicago’s way. Can the Predators feed off the home crowd to get the jump in the series? To do that, the Preds must regain the energy they had for 61 games. Champions come to play this time of year, and Chicago is one. Nashville must play the very best it is capable of, and they are capable. Expect a long, tense, thrilling series with lots of speed and scoring. It began Wednesday night and will continue every other day until a team reaches four wins.