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Smooth as Tennessee Whiskey: Blackhawks vs. Predators Preview

Just 21 games left in the season.

Nashville Predators v Chicago Blackhawks Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The Chicago Blackhawks host the Nashville Predators at the United Center on Saturday, the first of two meetings between these teams in the month of March. The last time the Blackhawks and Predators faced off, the Blackhawks won 4-2 in Nashville back before Christmas, but they were dramatically different teams back then.

The Predators come to Chicago sitting in fifth in the Central division and six points outside of the playoff picture. It hasn’t always been a pretty season for Nashville: statistically, this is one of the worst Predators teams in recent memory, with below average marks in practically every shot category. But they have been on a bit of a rise lately, winning four of their last five games and going 6-4-0 in the last 10.

It’s probably not enough to make a legitimate push for the playoffs, as Nashville is still six points behind the Winnipeg Jets for that second wild card spot — but the Predators do have three games in hand.

On a team that struggles to score like the Predators, it’s not actually surprising that their top producer is a defenseman — especially when that defenseman is the electrifying Roman Josi. He currently leads the team with 56 points (17 G, 39 A) in 59 games, and 14 of those points (5 G, 9 A) have come over the last 10 games. Also like usual, forwards Filip Forsberg and Matt Duchene are the most productive forwards with rates 0.84 and 0.86 points per game, respectively. Both are also tied for the team lead with 19 goals, though Forsberg has played in eight fewer games.

But the Predators are now without the next two forwards on the team, in terms of production: Mikael Granlund (9 G, 27 A) — traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins — and Nino Niederreiter (18 G, 10 A) — traded to the Winnipeg Jets. Neither were having their best seasons but it’s still a loss of offense. Nashville also traded Tanner Jeannot to the Tampa Bay Lightning, but his 0.25 points-per-game weren’t exactly breaking the bank in terms of production.

The Predators will be looking to their players who are 25 or younger to step up, a good thing for a team that seems to be rebuilding on the fly. And that plan’s off to a decent start: 25-year-old Tommy Novak has 22 points (9 G, 13 A) in 28 games, 22-year-old Juuso Pärssinen has 23 points (5 G, 18 A) in 42 games, and 23-year-old Cody Glass has 24 (8 G, 16 A) in 49 games. And although he’s only played in nine games, 21-year-old Philip Tomasino has added a goal and four assists in that span.

Despite all the moving parts and generally mediocre stats, the Predators have been finding ways to win lately, primarily on the backs of their netminder. Juuse Saros has been very solid: he has a .916 save percentage and 2.79 goals-against average in 45 games — all while facing the eighth most shots against per 60 (33.35) of goalies who have played at least 25 games. Kevin Lankinen has been even better as a backup with a .922 save percentage and 2.58 goals-against average while face 33.22 shots against per 60, but he’s only drawn into 14 games so far. That duo has especially been impressive at 5-on-5, with a .928 save percentage that is top-five in the league.

Just to put their workload into perspective, goalies that face more shots per 60 than the Nashville duo are mostly from teams competing for the draft lottery like the Anaheim Ducks, Columbus Blue Jackets, and — of course — the Blackhawks. The good news for whichever of Saros or Lankinen is in net, is that they shouldn’t have to work that hard against a Blackhawks team that has the second lowest shot rate in the league (26.6 per 60).

Tale of the Tape (statistics from this season)

Blackhawks — Statistic — Stars

43.15% (31st) — 5-on-5 Corsi For — 48.93% (22nd)

41.21% (31st) — 5-on-5 Expected goals for — 49.37% (21st)

2.46 (32nd) — Goals per game — 2.86 (25th)

3.61 (27th) — Goals against per game — 2.95 (12th)

54.4% (3rd) — Faceoffs — 51.7% (10th)

17.6% (27th) — Power play — 18.9% (25th)

75.8% (22nd) — Penalty kill — 81.0% (13th)

How to watch

When: 7:00 p.m. CT

Where: United Center, Chicago

TV: NBC Sports Chicago

Radio: WGN 720