The Chicago Blackhawks tried to make adjustments against the Nashville Predators, but they couldn’t change the fact that their opponent was faster. Over four games in a surprising sweep, that became the dominant theme to the point that it hardly mattered what Joel Quenneville did to try to change things.
His team didn’t have the speed to handle the Predators’ best, and now it’ll have a long summer to think about a short series.
The takes are going to come in hot over the next few weeks. This was supposed to be another possible Stanley Cup year for the Blackhawks, not an embarrassing flameout that included just three goals in nearly 257 minutes of hockey. The Hawks didn’t just get bounced from the playoffs prematurely. They got absolutely smoked by a clearly better team as it happened.
But don’t let anyone tell you this series was about the Blackhawks not wanting it bad enough, or failing to be prepared. They knew about the pace Nashville would try to play at in the playoffs — that’s not what surprised them. What caught them off guard was the discovery that, after a pretty good regular season, they didn’t have an extra gear in themselves like the other team did.
Maybe this should’ve been clear before. The Blackhawks’ top six defensemen are an average of 31 years old, compared to under 27 for the Predators. They added a bunch of young players to the roster, but Nick Schmaltz, Ryan Hartman, and Tanner Kero aren’t elite skaters. In an increasingly speedy NHL, the Blackhawks haven’t done what it takes to keep up.
And boy, they paid for it against the Predators. This was unlike anything Chicago fans have been treated to watching playoff hockey in a long time. The team wearing red, white, and black was totally outclassed from the opening puck drop of Game 1, and regularly needed strong play from Corey Crawford just to make things remotely interesting. With a worse goalie, this could’ve been even worse.
A huge speed advantage is what allowed this to happen. The neutral zone trap took away the Blackhawks’ transition game, and a suffocating defense aggressively tried to get forward and counterattack off that. When the Hawks weren’t stuck chipping and chasing and actually got good zone entries, the Predators won board battles, finished checks, and rattled the offense.
Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, the $10.5 million men, each finished with two points. Artemi Panarin had one on Toews’ goal after it was 3-0 in Game 4. Marian Hossa, Artem Anisimov, Schmaltz, and Hartman finished with zeroes across the board. Duncan Keith and Niklas Hjalmarsson got totally blitzed by the Predators’ top pairing before Coach Q turned the blender to 11 in Game 4.
The speed even made easy plays harder. You could see the Blackhawks constantly trying to make quick little passes because they could hear footsteps. And with the hurried pace came sloppiness, and missed shots. There was no way for Chicago to establish any rhythm or chemistry in the series.
That’s a credit to the Predators, who were simply the better team for four straight games. Now the Blackhawks will need to spend the offseason trying to retool, and it seems clear what their top priority should be.
The Hawks need to find a way to get faster, and they need to do it now. The league has been moving in that direction, and now it seemed like it’s starting to leave them behind.