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Caggiula returns as Blackhawks host new-look Predators

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A new coach will be behind Nashville’s bench for his second game on Thursday.

Nashville Predators v Chicago Blackhawks Photo by Bill Smith/NHLI via Getty Images

The second game of the John Hynes era will take place at the United Center on Thursday when the Blackhawks host the Predators and their new head coach.

Nashville introduced Hynes on Tuesday morning, making him just the third coach in the Predators’ young history. He replaced Peter Laviolette, who’d been with the team since the 2014-15 season and guided the team to its first Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2017. In Hynes debut on Tuesday night, the Predators lost 6-2 at home to the Bruins.

Offense hasn’t been an issue for the Predators this season, averaging 3.4 goals per game, a mark that’s sixth-best in the NHL. It’s a diverse scoring attack as well, with 10 Predators already over the 20-point mark and five players with double-digit goal totals. At the top of the list is defenseman Roman Josi, who leads the team in assists (31) and points (45) and is second to Filip Forsberg with 14 goals. Speaking of Forsberg, he remains one of the top scoring threats on Nashville’s No. 1 scoring line with Ryan Johansen (9-17-26) and Viktor Arvidsson (9-9-18). Matt Duchene (9-20-29) and Nick Bonino (13-11-24) provide additional scoring depth down the middle. But the recent injury to Ryan Ellis, who was elbowed in the head by noted trash heap Corey Perry during the Winter Classic and remains on injured reserve, took a sizable chunk out of Nashville’s defensive depth.

And that’s a big problem for Nashville, because defense has been this team’s downfall all season. At 3.33 goals against per game, the Predators rank 27th in the NHL. The PK has a miserable 73.9 percent conversion rate that is 30th in the 31-team league (and the power play hasn’t been much better, ranked 23rd at 17.3 percent). Of course, the numbers for each of Nashville’s goalies reflect those porous defensive statistics, with neither netminder above a .900 save percentage or a below a 3.00 goals-against average. Pekka Rinne has appeared in 26 games with a 14-9-3 record, .894 SA% and 3.06 GAA. Juuse Saros is at 5-7-4, .892 and 3.25, respectively. Those defensive woes are what led to Laviolette’s ouster and what must be corrected if Nashville is to emerge from its current spot at sixth place in the Central Division and six points out of a wild card spot.

Nashville sits one point ahead of the Blackhawks, who are coming off a 2-1 loss at home on Tuesday against the Flames. They’ll benefit from a return by forward Drake Caggiula, who’s been out of the lineup since Nov. 10 with a concussion. He’s expected to move to the top line along with Dominik Kubalik and Jonathan Toews, while John Quenneville drops down to the bottom six.

Matthew Highmore will return to the lineup as Dylan Sikura will be a healthy scratch. Additionally, defenseman Slater Koekkoek will pair up with Olli Maatta, while Dennis Gilbert watches from the press box as a healthy scratch.

Dylan Strome remains out after leaving Tuesday’s game with an injury, while Robin Lehner appears healthy enough to warrant returning Kevin Lankinen to the Rockford IceHogs. Still, Crawford gets the nod in net and will face the Predators for the first time in a few years:

If there’s going to be any type of second-half surge toward a playoff spot, a game against a team Chicago is chasing in the standings approaches must-win territory. Chicago has to leap three teams and gain six points in the standings to avoid a three-year playoff drought. They can’t close that entire gap on Thursday night against Nashville, but another loss will only add another level of difficulty to an already improbable task.

Let’s go Hawks!

Blackhawks — Statistic — Predators

47.8% (25th) — Corsi For — 52.5% (6th)

49.9% (17th) — Faceoffs — 52.4% (4th)

2.86 (20th) — Goals per game — 3.40 (6th)

3.16 (22nd) — Goals against per game — 3.33 (27th)

15.1% (28th) — Power play — 17.3% (23rd)

82.0% (9th) — Penalty kill — 73.9% (30th)

Lineups

Blackhawks (*subject to change)

Kubalik — Toews — Quenneville

DeBrincat — Dach — Kampf

Nylander — Carpenter — Kane

Highmore — Smith — Caggiula

Keith — Boqvist

Gustafsson — Murphy

MaattaKoekkoek

Crawford

Lehner

Predators

Forsberg — Johansen — Arvidsson

Jarnkrok — Duchene — Granlund

Grimaldi —Bonino — Smith

Trenin — Turris — Watson

Josi — Weber

Hamhuis — Ekholm

Tinordi — Irwin

Rinne

Saros

How to watch

When: 7:30 p.m.

Where: United Center, Chicago

TV: NBC Sports Chicago, NBC Sports Network

Live stream: NBC Sports app