(SportsNetwork.com) - The Chicago Blackhawks originally believed they'd have to go deep into the playoffs before getting Patrick Kane back on the ice. That won't be the case, however, as the star winger is set to make his return when Chicago visits the Nashville Predators on Wednesday for Game 1 of the Western Conference quarterfinals.
Chicago will make its seventh straight playoff appearance, a span that includes Cup titles in 2010 and 2013, and avoided a wild card berth despite not having winger Patrick Kane for the final 21 games due to a broken clavicle.
Kane still finished second in the club with 27 goals and 64 points, meaning he conceivably could have been in the running for the league's scoring title had he remained healthy. But winning another championship is the bigger goal and Chicago looks as though it will get Kane back for this series after he was cleared for contact earlier this week.
On Tuesday, Kane declared himself ready to go for the series opener.
"That's the plan," Kane said when asked if he'd be ready to go for Game 1.
That's great news for captain Jonathan Toews, who stepped up his offensive game in Kane's absence, as well as veterans Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp.
Hossa continues to contribute at the age of 36, with 22 goals and 61 points this season, but Sharp struggled with only six goals over his final 34 games while not scoring at all in the month of February.
Chicago wasn't among the scoring elites this season, but the return of Kane could help boost the offense
What the Blackhawks did do was rank second in the NHL in fewest goals allowed per game at 2.27 and netminder Corey Crawford shared the William M. Jennings Trophy, awarded to the goaltenders who play at least 25 games on the club that allows the fewest goals. Both Chicago and Minnesota yielded 189 tallies this season.
It marked Crawford's second Jennings Trophy, an award he also captured in 2012-13, and while the 30-year-old isn't know for stealing games single- handily, he was solid with a 32-20-5 mark, 2.27 GAA and .924 save percentage while missing some time with injury.
Chicago boasts two-time Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith at the top of the defensive rotation. The top two pairings are excellent with Brent Seabrook teaming up with Keith and Niklas Hjalmarsson skating alongside Johnny Oduya, but the Blackhawks have depth issues at the back end.
Earlier this season, the Predators seemed destined to not only win the Central Division, but also looked like they would challenge for the best record in the league. In the end, they'll settle for a second-place finish in the division and home-ice advantage in this series.
Peter Laviolette's first campaign as head coach in Nashville resulted in a trip to the playoffs, but it could be a short one if the club can't halt its late-season struggles.
The Preds return to the postseason after missing out the previous two springs, a span that cost Barry Trotz his job as the only head coach the franchise had previously known. Laviolette was able to keep the Predators' defensive identity largely intact while adding a bit more offensive punch (2.76 goals per game), but a club once in the running for the Presidents' Trophy comes in slumping bad.
Nashville went 0-4-2 over their final six games and 8-13-4 in the past 25. That allowed the St. Louis Blues to win the Central by five points over the Preds, who only held off the Blackhawks by two points for second place.
Of course, one could argue the slate gets wiped clean for the postseason and that would be a good thing for netminder Pekka Rinne, who put together another solid season statistically but allowed 14 goals in losing his last four starts.
Rinne was among the league leaders with 41 wins and a 2.18 goals against average despite missing nearly a month of action with a sprained knee suffered on Jan. 13. He's had his ups and downs since returning, but had an excellent 2011-12 postseason with a 2.07 GAA and .929 save percentage.
Shea Weber and his blistering slap shot has always defined the Nashville's blue line, but 24-year-old Roman Josi emerged this season as a top contributor as well. Jose set career highs with 15 goals, 40 assists and 55 points in 81 games, tying for fifth among NHL defenseman in points.
It will be the forwards that decide if Nashville moves on. Filip Forsberg tied for second among all NHL rookies with 26 goals and was third in points with 63, leading Nashville in both categories, while Mike Ribeiro had a great bounce-back season with 47 assists and 62 points. That duo, along with James Neal, will have to carry the load as the rest of the offensive production can be spotty at times. Centers Craig Smith and Colin Wilson did reach the 20-goal mark and Mike Fisher had 19 goals and 39 points while limited to 59 games due to injury.
The Preds are hoping someone from the third or fourth lines can deliver in the postseason.
"So often, it's a third or fourth line guy that steps up and runs with it and it makes a big difference [in the playoffs]," said forward Matt Cullen "We have a lot of guys that have the potential to do that, and it's always exciting to see who does."
The Blackhawks went 3-1-0 versus the Predators this season, winning twice beyond regulation, but the clubs haven't faced each other since Dec. 29.
Crawford started twice against the Predators this season, winning an overtime contest and a shootout decision. He is 9-7-1 lifetime against Nashville with a 2.76 GAA and .894 save percentage in 17 games (16 starts).
Rinne is 14-11-4 in 30 games (28 starts) lifetime against the Blackhawks with a 2.54 GAA and .918 save percentage. He went 1-1-1 in three matchups this season.
The Blackhawks and Predators have met just once in the postseason, a 2010 conference quarterfinal series that Chicago won in six games. The 'Hawks won the Stanley Cup that season, beating the Laviolette-coached Philadelphia Flyers team in the Finals.
Game 2 of this series is scheduled for Friday at Nashville's Bridgestone Arena.