On their way to the Championships in 2010 and 2013, the Chicago Blackhawks defeated the Nashville Predators in the first round of the NHL playoffs. The Western Conference top seed had realistic expectations of reviving history, but facing a spiked, underperforming lower ranked team is always dangerous, and this time the Predators came out determined to bite back and change the narrative. They couldn’t have done it in a more emphatic way, authoring the most stunning first round sweep in the NHL this century and their maiden playoff triumph in just four matches. Let’s dive into the numbers to understand how such an outcome materialized.
Game 1: Nashville Predators 1 @ 0 Chicago Blackhawks
Game 2: Nashville Predators 5 @ 0 Chicago Blackhawks
Game 3: Chicago Blackhawks 2 @ 3 Nashville Predators (OT)
Game 4: Chicago Blackhawks 1 @ 4 Nashville Predators
Pekka Rinne, the Great Finnish Wall
The career of the Predators goaltender has been dotted by more peaks and valleys than his pedigree would anticipate and, following an average regular season, all eyes were on him as pundits gauged Nashville’s chances of making a run for the Cup. In four of Rinne’s five previous playoff campaigns, his overall Sv% didn’t rise above .912, consequently it was time the Finnish goalie justified his hefty 7M cap hit in the postseason. However, few could have predicted the level of domination he displayed against the Blackhawks.
The 34-year-old stonewalled the high-flying offense of Chicago on the road in the first two games of the series, turning aside all 59 shots thrown at his net, and kept his spectacular form in the friendly confines of the Bridgestone Arena, pitching two more wins to close out the series with only three goals allowed in 126 shots faced.
That’s a scintillating 0.976 Sv% and 0.70 GAA over a near perfect series, where Rinne allowed a single even-strength goal in 115 shots (0.991 Sv%!), 15 of those of the “high-danger” variety, and posted a preposterous 6.21 goals saved above average (GSAA) rating in just four games. Such brilliance turned the Predators into the 13th NHL team to quell their opponent to three or less goals in a four-game series, and just the fourth in the last 38 years (1994 NYR, 2001 TOR, 2003 ANA & 2013 BOS).
For good measure, Rinne also picked up two assists in Game 2, something no Blackhawks player could do over the entire series.
Pounce early on to steal away home ice advantage
The noise inside Chicago’s United Center after the usual pregame festivities is further amped up came playoff time, and it was imperative the Predators were able to withstanding the impact of the first few minutes on the road, as Chicago posted the second best Win% after scoring first (0.740) during the regular season.
Furthermore, Nashville had dropped 9 of the previous 10 games in Chicago and compiled the worst road record amongst playoff teams in the NHL this season, yet the visitors looked anything like an anxious bunch as they scored early in both games to put the Blackhawks on their heels.
The tallies by Viktor Arvidsson, with 7.52min played in Game 1, and Ryan Ellis, just 3.44 min into Game 2, both due to the work of Nashville’s top forward line against the Jonathan Toews unit, calmed the crowd, injected life into Peter Laviolette’s bench and forced the Hawks to take chances and shorten the bench as the clock advanced.
In Game 1, the pressure of Chicago, especially the Kane-Anisimov-Panarin trio, almost cracked Rinne, but the Predators were able to hang on to a 1-0 victory, while in Game 2 their strategy worked to perfection. They dominated possession and scoring chances metrics throughout, and took advantage of the Hawks lackadaisical defensive play to deliver two back-breaking goals in the second period that put the game away.
Bolstered by two road performances “by the book”, the Predators returned to Tennessee with home ice advantage, a firm grasp on the series and the seed of doubt planted in the mind of their accomplished opponent.
The Predators top line tortured Chicago, the others delivered the knockout punches
Viktor Arvidsson, Ryan Johansen and Filip Forsberg combined for five goals, 17 points, a 60.2 FF%, 12 scoring chances for and just 2 against – an outstanding 88.3 SCF% -, six goals for and 0 against while on the ice.
There’s no way around it. The Predators top forward unit dismantled the Hawks, who had no answer for them even if Joel Quenneville tried everything. Going power on power with the Panarin-Anisimov-Kane line, deploy Jonathan Toews to slow them down, tap on the defensive prowess of Marcus Kruger and Marian Hossa, and shuffle his defensive pairs when Duncan Keith and Niklas Hjalmarsson (13-28 Shots For, 3-8 SCF, 0-3 GF) botched the job. Eventually, he would be forced to load up with Toews between Kane and Panarin for Game 4, and they responded with a 66.7 CF% in 18 min together, despite struggling to create chances (1-3 SCF). It was already too late.
With the No.1 line wreaking havoc on the Hawks, it was up to Nashville’s other forwards to find a way to impact the tie decisively, and all units had their moment in the sun. The physical Harry Zolnierczyk – Mike Fischer – Austin Watson group couldn’t drive play but still crafted a huge 2-0 goal in Game 2. Colton Sissons finished up a great shift by Craig Smith to follow up with the third on the 5-0 rout, and added a monumental tally in Game 4 that all but sealed the sweep. As for the second line, Kevin Fiala, Calle Jarnkrok and James Neal accounted for a 57.1 CF% and 61.6 SCF%, but looked snake bitten until they orchestrated the vital GWG in Game 3 OT.
On the other side, with the Patrick Kane unit unable to break through, the blender of Joel Quenneville functioned incessantly but to no avail. Their only 5 on 5 goal came off a good cycle by Marcus Kruger, Dennis Rasmussen and Richard Panik, opening the score in the second period of Game 3 and breaking Rinne’s SO streak, but the Hawks couldn’t hold onto the lead.
Best players in the series
Pekka Rinne (Nashville Predators)
As evidence above, the performance of Pekka Rinne was the primary factor behind the Predators smashing triumph, but many of his colleagues also excelled individually.
For instance, center Ryan Johansen, who was a force up the middle and collected a series-high 6 pts (1+5), or Filip Forsberg, who posted 5 pts, including two goals in Game 3 to rally the Predators back. Meanwhile, defenseman Roman Josi netted twice in the series-clincher and his pairing with Ryan Ellis amassed a +5 rating in spite of heavy deployment and a whole lot of rubber flying around (24 blocked shots accumulated between the two).
Patrick Kane (Chicago Blackhawks)
The reigning Hart Trophy winner couldn’t rise above the nightmarish series for the Hawks, failing to hit the scoresheet with the regularity Chicago fans expected, but it wasn’t for a lack of effort. While fellow superstars Jonathan Toews (-5) and Duncan Keith (-6) were mostly invisible, Kane flung a series-high 23 SOG, logged 23.55 min TOI/GP, and notched a PP goal on Game 3 to extend the Hawks lead at the time. And while things never broke his way, he wasn’t careless with the puck, giving the puck only once and picking up three takeaways.
Will the Chicago Blackhawks return to the playoffs next year?
Absolutely. There’s probably another long run left on this group although the Blackhawks status as the class of the West is ever more fragile with every member of the core over 28 years old and hence with its best years behind. More importantly, there’s not one of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Artem Anisimov, Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Corey Crawford that doesn’t possess some kind of NMC/NTC protection, which severely limits Stan Bowman’s ability to shake things up after a second consecutive first round exit.
Unless they decide – and find a way – to offload Seabrook, Crawford, Hossa or Anisimov, with Artemi Panarin’s extension kicking in and his cap hit jumping to 6M, the Hawks have minimal margin (around 3M) to compose their roster with two blueliners that can fill in for veterans Brian Campbell and Johnny Oduya – whose time in Chicago should be finished for good -, a couple of depth forwards and a solid backup goalie, now that Scott Darling appears ready for a more prominent role elsewhere.
RFA Richard Panik priced himself out of Chicago with a 22-goal season, and his role will have to be assumed by one of the young players that populated the lower lines this season (Ryan Hartman, Nick Schmaltz, Tanner Kero, Vinnie Hinostroza, Dennis Rasmussen) with mixed results. Unless the exciting Alex DeBrincat, who scored 65 times in 63 OHL regular season games this season, can jump right into the spotlight.