The Nashville Predators opened their 2017 playoff run last night with a 1-0 win on the road against the Chicago Blackhawks. Out of 21 NHL.com experts, only one of them selected the Predators to win the first-round match-up. The Blackhawks are the clear favorites after finishing in first place in the Western Conference. It is easy to look at their roster and their playoff pedigree and give them the series. The Predators, however, are coming off of a strong season of their own, and the current roster has playoff experience. If they hope to win three more games against the mighty Blackhawks, they will need to carry over three aspects of play from their game-one victory.
Three Keys for Nashville Predators in Round One
Big Line Needs to be Big
Throughout game one, the Nashville Predators top line of Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg, and Viktor Arvidsson was buzzing. They generated five shots on net throughout the game. All three combined for the game’s only goal, scored in the first period by Arvidsson. Johansen outworked three Chicago defenders to move the puck to Forsberg, who threw it on net to be tipped in by Arvidsson on the far post. Throughout the night, this line was Nashville’s best, generating zone-time with a heavy forecheck. In the third period, Arvidsson narrowly missed adding an insurance goal, using his speed to get behind the Chicago defense, and hitting the crossbar on a backhand attempt.
If the Predators are going to continue winning against the Blackhawks, their first line needs to stay aggressive and outwork the opposition. Particularly impressive were Arvidsson’s seemingly endless reserve of energy and Johansen’s strength and grittiness in puck battles. Chicago will continue to match up their top defensive players in Duncan Keith and Jonathan Toews against this line. If the trio of Johansen, Forsberg and Arvidsson can continue to solve the defense, they are among the more threatening scoring lines in the NHL.
Shut Down Opposition Scoring
On the other side of the puck, the Predators found success in shutting down the Blackhawks top scoring line. Patrick Kane, Artemi Panarin, and Artem Anisimov combined during the regular season for 622 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time. During this time, they generated a Corsi-for percentage of 53.37. Kane finished the season with 34 goals, Panarin scored 31, and Anisimov scored 22. Ryan Ellis and Roman Josi were, for the most part, tasked with the job of stopping this scoring machine. If the Predators hope to close out this series, they will need to continue succeeding in this. The Blackhawks top line generated eleven shots, so the Predators will want to tighten up even further.
Ellis looked like the Predators best defenseman last night, routinely breaking up plays and clearing the crease. He saw over 26 minutes of ice time, second only to his partner Josi. On top of stellar defending, he added three shots of his own on goal. If Ellis and Josi can keep the Blackhawks top line relatively quiet, the Predators stand an even better chance to pull off the upset.
Hopefully P.K. Subban was taking notes and can step up his game to match. He was fair at best in this game, showing his propensity for questionable decision making in the defensive zone. In the playoffs, Subban does not have the time and space to recover from these gaffs. He will need to tighten up in his own end.
The Predators have always been known for top-notch defense, and in recent seasons made huge strides to add scoring. The biggest question mark for their success in the playoffs will be another of their traditional mainstays: goaltending. Pekka Rinne seems to be moving past his prime in recent seasons. His team has improved, but his personal numbers have dipped. In game one, however, he was in peak form. If the Predators are to move past this series into a deep run, it is imperative that Rinne be on top of his game.
Last night, Rinne stopped all 29 shots he faced. He looked sharp in challenging shooters and made several key saves. He played more aggressively than he has at times. Occasionally he shows a tendency to rely on his size to make saves, but last night Rinne was moving very well. He was sharp tracking pucks and was prepared on rebound attempts. Particularly impressive was his second period stop on Marian Hossa. If Rinne can stay true to form, the Predators are a complete team. He needs to prepare for a Blackhawks onslaught on Saturday. Chicago will not be caught off-guard again at home.
The Predators cannot count on winning each game in a seven-game series 1-0. They will need to generate more scoring of their own. The Blackhawks applied more pressure as the game went on, but certainly did not play to their ability. Even so, it is huge for the Predators to steal a game and take home-ice advantage away from the Blackhawks. During the regular season, the Predators won 68% of their home games, and just under 44% of their away games. Stealing a game away and heading back to Nashville with the series tied bodes well for the homebody Predators.
Rinne perhaps best summed up the approach the Predators need to take to game two: “I think just focusing on us, improving our game; I think we all feel like there’s areas in the game we can improve… We should feel comfortable and confident right now, but I’m really excited for Game Two, and I think everybody else is as well.” If the Predators did not believe in themselves before, they do now. If they can continue to improve in these three areas, others will soon be forced to as well.