The Blackhawks and Predators face off Saturday night at the United Center in the first of a weekend back-to-back set — the first time the usual division rivals have seen each other in nearly two months.
During the Southern Road Trip of Doom™, the Blackhawks saw their lead for fourth place in the division — and thus a playoff spot — shrink, and there are now three teams within spitting distance, including the Blackhawks’ opponent this weekend. The Predators are just four points behind the Blackhawks in the standings, so the back-to-back set against the team from Nashville this week is more important than ever if the Blackhawks want to keep their playoff hopes going.
After a slow start to the season, the Predators are on a roll lately, having won three in a row and five of their past six games. During that stretch, the Predators beat up the lowly Detroit Red Wings, outscoring them 9 to 1 in two games, and scraped by the mediocre Dallas Stars with a shootout win. That may not seem impressive considering the quality of the teams, but prior to those games, the Predators held their own against the top Central Division teams — the Lightning and Panthers — winning at least one game against each. The only issue for the Predators during their six-game spread is that they had only a 47 percent share of the expected goals at 5-on-5 and have been somewhat relying on spikes in their shooting (9.85) and save percentages (.963).
Although the Predators have struggled offensively, they still have the usual players leading the team from the front and back ends in Filip Forsberg — who has 29 points (11 G, 18 A) in 34 games — and Roman Josi — who has 19 points (2 G, 17 A) in 27 games. Calle Jarnkrok rounds out the top three producers with 15 points (9 G, 6 A) in 28 games. The Predators have also relied on several rookies this season due to injuries, including 21-year old Eeli Tolvanen, who is tied for fifth among rookies with 0.56 points per game. In net, it’s been a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde situation: Juuse Saros playing quite nice with a .920 save percentage and 2.48 goals against average, while Pekka Rinne has been ugly with a .899 save percentage and 3.07 goals against average.
After the early March slide, the Blackhawks gained some momentum with back-to-back home wins over the Panthers on Tuesday and Thursday. Patrick Kane (1 G, 3 A) and Brandon Hagel (1 G, 2 A) led the team offensively while Kevin Lankinen stopped 76 of 78 shots in both games. It was a mixed bag performance-wise, with the first game being one of their best — 52.58 percent share of expected goals — while the latter one of the worst — 31.92 percent share of expected goals. However, one positive from both games was that the Blackhawks showed they’re learning how to close out a game. During a span of nearly 10 minutes on Thursday night, while leading 2-0, the Blackhawks prevented Florida from registering a shot on goal. Chicago still lacks consistent puck possession and they’ll need to apply their closers lesson more often in the future, but, in a season that is all about improvements over time, it was a good thing to see that materialize.
The Predators and Blackhawks haven’t seen each other since January, so it’ll be a bit of a fresh start for both considering they’re battling for the same final playoff spot. In those early meetings, the Predators beat the Blackhawks twice, and although both games needed extra time to decide a victory, the Predators outshot the Blackhawks 81-50 and out-chanced them 78-47. In the first game on Jan. 26, the Blackhawks posted their 10th worst 5-on-5 expected goals share of the season at 40.99 percent. The Blackhawks had to rely on excellent goaltending — a . 963 save percentage — just to keep the games close. The Predators may seem like less of a challenge than those the Blackhawks faced on the disastrous road trip, but the Blackhawks will need to be at their best to fend off an opponent so close in the rearview mirror as they race for the playoffs.
Blackhawks — Statistic — Predators
43.19% (29th) — 5-on-5 Corsi For — 47.49% (21st)
40.11% (31st) — 5-on-5 Expected goals for — 50.14 (17th)
2.91 (16th) — Goals per game — 2.44 (27th)
3.12 (22nd) — Goals against per game — 3.06 (20th)
46.3% (27th) — Faceoffs — 51.0% (13th)
28.3% (3rdd) — Power play — 20.4% (15th)
73.6% (27th) — Penalty kill — 71.9% (30th)
Projected lineups (subject to change)
DeBrincat — Suter — Kane
Kubalik — Kampf — Hagel
Janmark — Carpenter — Strome
Wallmark — Soderberg — Kurashev
Keith — Michell
Zadorov — Murphy
de Haan — Boqvist
Forsberg — Johansen — Tolvanen
Jarnrok — Granlund — Arvidsson
Cousins — Haula — Grimaldi
Trenin — Sissons — Olivier
Josi — Fabbro
Ekholm — Carrier
Harpur — Benning
How to watch
When: 7 p.m. CT
Where: United Center
TV: NBC Sports Chicago
Live stream: NBC Sports app, NHL.TV