(SportsNetwork.com) - Peter Laviolette's first campaign as head coach of the Nashville Predators resulted in a trip to the playoffs, but it could be a short one if the club can't halt its late-season struggles.
Nashville returns 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.
The Predators 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 Division by five points over the Preds, who only held off the Blackhawks by two points for home-ice advantage in this series.
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.
Weber had 10 fewer points than Josi, but still ranked fourth on the club while averaging over 26 minutes per game along with Josi. The duo are also dangerous on the power play, though Nashville ranked only 25th in that department at 16.2 percent.
Fellow blueliners Ryan Ellis and Seth Jones added 27 points each and Mattias Ekholm is solid as well. Cody Franson, acquired along with forward Mike Santorelli from Toronto on Feb. 15, rounds out the unit.
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.
The Predators hope that the 20-year-old Forsberg has something left in the tank, while Ribeiro needs to keep the fire lit after Arizona not only bought out his contract this past summer but questioned his character as well.
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.
Paul Gaustad is no longer a top-six forward, but he is one of the top faceoff men in the league and his ability to win draws is key late in games or on the penalty kill.
REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 48-28-6 (3rd Place, Central)
2014 PLAYOFFS: Defeated St. Louis 4-2 in conference quarterfinals; defeated Minnesota 4-2 in conference semifinals; lost to Los Angeles 4-3 in conference finals
Many things often have to break right during a championship-winning season and the Chicago Blackhawks appear to have said luck early on.
Though it got closer than the Blackhawks probably would have liked, the Chicago held off the Minnesota Wild for third place in the division despite a season-ending four-game losing streak. That allowed the Blackhawks to avoid slipping into a wild card spot and facing a division winner.
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.
Third-year forward Brandon Saad, though, broke out with career highs of 23 goals, 29 assists and 52 points, veteran center Brad Richards was able to contribute 37 points and there is hope that center Antoine Vermette will get on track after logging only three assists in 19 games after being acquired from the Arizona Coyotes.
Chicago wasn't among the scoring elites this season, but the return of Kane would boost that.
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.
It's in between the forwards and goaltender where the Blackhawks could run into trouble.
Defenseman Duncan Keith is a two-time Norris Trophy winner, Brent Seabrook is as solid a contributor as they come and Niklas Hjalmarsson was an excellent plus-25. Johnny Oduya is also serviceable in the top-4, but there is a drop- off after that.
Veteran Michal Rozsival appeared in 65 games while logging 17 minutes of ice time a night and David Rundblad isn't counted on for heavy minutes. Veteran Kimmo Timonen, acquired from the Philadelphia Flyers, played in 16 games after missing the start of the campaign due to blood clots and could be an x- factor if he can still handle the speed of playoff hockey.
Otherwise, head coach Joel Quenneville is going to lean heavy on his top four defensemen.
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.
Hossa and Saad had three points each versus the Preds this season, with Hossa netting three goals. Keith added four assists in the four meetings.
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).
Neal paced the Predators with five goals in the four meetings with the 'Hawks, while Wilson, Forsberg and Ribeiro all had three assists. Forsberg, though, did not score in the season series.
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.
Nashville may be the higher seed in this series, but it is always tough to bet against experience, something Chicago has plenty of when it comes to the postseason. Add in a returning Kane and the Blackhawks expect to give the Predators' defense all it can handle.
Nashville relies on its blue line and goaltender to win games and its offense outside of Neal was largely shut down by Chicago this season. The Predators have never advanced past the semifinals and could be in line for a first-round exit this season.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Blackhawks in 6