While many teams across the NHL are already making moves for the offseason, the Chicago Blackhawks are getting ready for their first-round series against the Nashville Predators. It almost feels like destiny that these two rivals would meet so early in the postseason, giving us an exciting series we've pretty much all wanted.
The Predators are a different kind of team this year, thanks to some better luck with injuries and a variety of astute moves by the front office. With star rookie Filip Forsberg and high-scoring winger James Neal adding a new dynamic to an already fantastic defensive team, Nashville is not to be doubted even if the team isn't favored.
That means the Hawks have a serious challenge on their hands from the first day of the playoffs, whether Patrick Kane manages to play or not. We'll have a lot more for you all throughout the week, but with the puck drop for Game 1 looming just around the corner, here are three major story lines to watch out for over the next couple days:
The health of Patrick Kane
It's pretty much impossible to go through an entire 82-game slate without suffering major injuries, something the Hawks and Predators both know quite well. Now that Patrick Kane has been listed as probable for Game 1, according to reports, it's possible Chicago gets an unexpected boost from the early return of its superstar winger.
Kane participated with the Hawks in full-contact practice Monday, and coach Joel Quenneville said after practice that he could play Wednesday. The team will likely spend the next couple days monitoring his status, but it sounds like the Hawks plan to have Kane back sooner rather than later.
This will be one of the major storylines over the next few days so expect to hear a lot about how Kane looked in practice and whether he'll be ready to suit up. I don't think anyone wants the Hawks to rush Kane back, but it sounds like he's in condition to return quite soon.
Pekka Rinne's recent slump
There are a lot of reasons to consider Nashville a dangerous team, from the burgeoning talent on the wings to the horrifying one-two defensive punch of Shea Weber and Roman Josi. Still, when you look at the Predators and think about what it'll take to beat them, the story tends to begin and end with the goaltending prowess of Pekka Rinne.
There may not be many truly special netminders in the NHL these days, but Rinne is one of them. After a couple years of battling injuries and inconsistency, the 32-year-old put it together and delivered one of the best seasons of his career: 41-17-6 record, .923 save percentage and 2.18 goals against average. His quality start rate, which measures how often a goaltender posts a save percentage better than league average (or gets 88.5 percent of saves when facing fewer than 20 shots), is at 72.1 percent. The league average tends to fall in the mid-50s.
Having Rinne on his game explains a large part of Nashville's emergence this season. It also could spell out why the team's postseason falls short of expectations. That's because Rinne, as good as he's been all year, has been going through a bit of a slump lately.
Carter Hutton started for Nashville in the final game of the season, likely to allow Rinne to catch his breath and clear his head. His final four performances of the season don't exactly lead to much optimism when he'll be facing a Blackhawks team with the pedal to the metal:
If that's the Rinne the Blackhawks are facing in the first round, it may not matter whether Kane is back or not. The Predators will need their goaltender to be at his best, and it's been a few weeks since we last saw that.
Keeping the red out
Blackhawks fans have developed a bit of a reputation for traveling well. No opposing team seems more bothered by that than the Predators, who have made countless efforts to "Keep The Red Out" of Bridgestone Arena over the past few years.
That will continue this week with the opening games of the series in Nashville, as The Tennesseean reports the Predators are changing their pregame routine to quiet the cheers of a presumably large pro-Chicago crowd.
See, us Blackhawks fans have taken to cheering loudly during the national anthem -- it's one of the ways we celebrate while getting riled up for a good ol' hockey game. Folks in Nashville aren't fans of that, however, so the team is having the entire crowd participate in the signing of the anthem in order to drown out the Blackhawks' crowd.
"It would almost be against God, country and apple pie to shout and cheer through the person next to you singing the anthem of the United States of America, wouldn't it?" Predators president Sean Henry said.
So the Predators are basically trying to get Blackhawks fans to shut up by telling them it's unpatriotic to be so dang loud. Even if that works before the game, I'm not exactly sure how that'll fix the "LET'S GO HAWKS" chants coming from the rafters in the third period.
I love that Hawks fans can travel like this. Let's just not do anything to embarrass the millions of us as we cheer on our favorite team.