The Central Division is stacked. All seven of the teams in the division finished the season with at least 90 points and three teams, St. Louis, Chicago, and Nashville, finished in the top seven in the league’s standings. As a result, the matchup between the second and third placed teams in the division looks a lot more like a Western Conference Final than a first round series.
Despite being two of the better team in the NHL, both the Predators and Hawks limped into the playoffs on a pretty ugly losing streak. The Predators haven’t earned a win in six games, dating back to March 28, while the Hawks lost their final four games of the season in regulation. Basically, this series will come down to which team can figure it out and get back to playing how they did for the majority of the regular season.
Who wins between the Central Division foes? Let’s take a look.
The Preds and Hawks have played each other four time this season, but they haven’t seen each other since before New Year’s, so it’ll take a little bit of time for these teams to get familiar with each other.
The two teams have met once before in the playoffs, back in 2010. The Hawks earned a six game series win and then went on to win their first Stanley Cup in half a century.
While the Blackhawks won the season series with the Predators with three wins in four games, it’s difficult to say there was a clear cut winner in the series. Of those three wins, one came in overtime and one came in a shootout, while both teams earned one win in regulation. The last game the two teams played was way back on Dec. 29, where the Predators blew a three goal lead by allowing Chicago to score three goals in seven minutes in the second period which eventually led to a shootout win for the Hawks.
The underlying metrics also suggests that this was a really tight season series, as neither team had a CorsiFor percentage at even strength above 55.0 per cent. There was only one game where the Hawks heavily out shot the Predators when they won their first meeting of the year back on Oct. 18 2-1 in overtime. Despite outshooting Nashville 37-20, the Hawks only held a slight advantage in the possession game.
James Neal was the key offensive juggernaut for the Preds against the Hawks this season. In four games, Neal scored five goals, with three of them coming on a hat-trick in a 3-2 Preds win. Those five goals account for more than half of Nashville’s goals in the series, as they only managed to score nine goals against the Hawks.
Neither the Predators or Blackhawks have been particularly strong with the man advantage this season. Both teams finished in the bottom half of the league in power play percentage, as Chicago finished 19th with a 17.69 per cent efficiency and Nashville finished 25th with a 16.22 per cent efficiency.
A big reason for Chicago’s mediocre power play this season probably has a lot to do with the fact Patrick Kane, their best offensive threat, was injured for a good chunk of the season. The Hawks had the fifth highest CorsiFor percentage with the man advantage, but a shooting percentage of 11.2 resulted in just 46 power play goals scored. Before Kane got injured, he had 27 goals and 37 assists, with sic goals and 16 assists coming on the power play.
Nashville has also had a pretty difficult time on the power play, which is surprising considering Shea Weber’s rocket from the blue line. A big reason for Nashville’s power play futility has to be their 7.9 shooting percentage. Couple that with the fact they’re also in the bottom third of the league in shots for per 60 minutes with the man advantage and it isn’t surprising the Preds only scored 42 power play goals this season.
This entire discussion about power play efficiency may actually be irrelevant in this series because the Hawks and Preds are two of the most disciplined teams in the league. The Predators had the eighth fewest power play opportunities against this season with 234, which is impressive, but not nearly as impressive as the Hawks, who were only shorthanded 211 times.
Nashville looks like a serious threat to go deep into the playoffs because of their even strength numbers. The Preds have the league’s best goals for percentage at even strength at 56.9 per cent due in large part to the combination of good possession players and good goaltending. Of course, right up there with the Preds are the Hawks, who boast a 54.2 goals for percentage at even strength.
Both the Hawks and Preds’ strong even strength possession stats are driven by a strong defensive core that can make effective breakout passes to their forwards and also suppress opportunities on the defensive end. Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Niklas Hjalmarsson all own positive even strength CorsiFor percentages despite facing difficult competition from their opponents. Same goes for the Preds, as Shea Weber and Roman Josi are each in the positive in the possession category despite their competition.
The key for the Hawks will be shutting down James Neal, Mike Ribeiro, and Filip Forsberg, who both boast three of the top 15 even strength CorsiFor percentages in the league. After those three, the Predators don’t have many offensive threats to worry about. The Hawks, on the other hand, will be much more difficult to shut down as they feature a deep, playoff savvy lineup full of offensive threats — especially when Patrick Kane comes back from injury.
With such strong performances at even strength this season, both the Preds and Hawks are poised to make some damage in the playoffs. It’s unfortunate one of these teams is going to be knocked out so early, but it’ll be a great series regardless.
The one clear cut advantage in this series to me is the one between the pipes.
Pekka Rinne’s brilliance as a goaltender has been overshadowed this season because of his mid-season injury and because of incredible performances by Carey Price and Andrew Hammond. While he won’t win the Vezina this year, he’s still arguably the best goalie in the league, and I would much rather have him in net than Corey Crawford.
I’m not going to criticize Crawford, because he’s proved in the past that he can get the job done, but Rinne’s 2.18 goals against average and 0.923 save percentage gives the Preds an edge in net.
In my opinion, this is the most difficult series to predict. I would go with the Hawks because of their playoff experience and firepower up front with Kane returning to the lineup, but this really looks like it could be Nashville’s year.
Both teams play a really good game at even strength, have really strong defensive cores, are disciplined, and neither team has much of an advantage over the other on the power play. The difference is Chicago has stronger offensive weapons, while the Preds are better in net.
This series is likely to go the Hawks in seven games, but it’s a coin flip.