April 13 2017 01:04PM
This is part of a playoff preview series based at NHLNumbers.com
While some of the playoff landscape is not quite what we've been used to -- welcome back, Leafs and Oilers -- we're at least in familiar territory with the Central Division. Stop me if you've heard this before: The Chicago Blackhawks coasted to a first place finish in the Central (and the Western Conference) and will face the second wild card in the first round. This year, the second wild card happens to be the Nashville Predators.
Look, the Blackhawks had a good year. (How good they are as a team is debatable, but you can't deny that 109 points isn't shabby.) The Predators? Well. It's a little difficult to characterize their season as "good," because while they've achieved at least part of what they set out to achieve by making it to the playoffs, this is a team that underachieved, especially in the early part of the season.
It fits the narrative, then, that Chicago has dominated the season series, posting a 4-1-0 record against Nashville. All five games ended in regulation, and after dropping the two teams' first meeting of the season, the Blackhawks have won four straight.
Chicago and Nashville played twice very early on in the season. Nashville won their home opener on October 14 by a score of 3-2, outshooting the Blackhawks by a fairly slim margin. It was Nashville's excellent defensive corps on display in that win, with goals from PK Subban and Roman Josi. The next meeting, just two days later, went to the Blackhawks. Chicago's Richard Panik carried his team to their first win of the young season, registering a hat trick -- his first in the NHL. The Hawks' power play also had a good night, converting on two of three chances.
Preds and Hawks didn't meet again until late December, and as has often been the case in Chicago the past two years, this game was won by the grace of the hockey gods and Corey Crawford. The Preds dominated the game in terms of shot volume, outshooting Chicago 38-23, but Crawford's 36-save performance was enough for the win.
Less than two weeks later, the two teams faced off for a fourth time. The final score was lopsided: 5-2 in favor of the Hawks, but don't be fooled -- the game was tied for most of the third, and Chicago's final two goals were empty netters. (A fun but useless fact: Just like the last time the Hawks put up a five-spot against the Preds, this game also featured a hat trick, this time from rookie Ryan Hartman.)
The most recent meeting between the teams was eerily similar to the previous one. The game was tied for much of the third, but a late goal and the ensuing empty netter made the Hawks' win seem more dominant than it actually was. In fact, the Preds actually outshot the Blackhawks, but a leaky penalty kill allowed two Chicago goals in two chances and ended up being the difference in the game.
If you disregard empty net goals, all but one of the five games was decided by a single goal, which means the 4-1-0 season series in favor of the Hawks is a little misleading. And personally, I wouldn't bet on this series being a short one -- it has all the potential to be a tight, 7-game series.
What do the Numbers Say?
Chicago: 54.5 5v5 GF%, 50.4 5v5 CF%, 49.9 5v5 FF%, 9.6 SH%, 91.8 SV%, 18.0 PP%, 77.7 PK%
Nashville: 52.3 5v5 GF%, 51.36 5v5 CF%, 51.0 5v5 FF%, 9.3 SH%, 91.1 SV%, 18.9 PP%, 80.9 PK%
Well, the numbers more or less confirm that we should be in for a pretty good series, here.
Nashville is slightly better in terms of shot metrics, with the edge in both CF% and FF%. The difference between the teams is still pretty minimal, though, and neither team is unbelievably dominant in the possession game. At even strength, it appears that neither team holds a significant edge.
The same goes for shooting percentage and save percentage. However, since we're starting to cotton on to the fact that raw save percentage isn't a terrific way to evaluate goalies, we'll peek into each starting goalie's adjGSAA/60. (That stands for adjusted goals saved above average per 60, and it is exactly what it sounds like.)
In this category, Corey Crawford (.259) is markedly better than Pekka Rinne (-.160). Crawford's adjusted save percentage is also much higher than Rinne's, as he finished the year with a .932 to Rinne's .916. (If you want to play with more goalie stats, you should definitely check out Ian Fleming's SAV3 Charts here!) The takeaway? When it comes to goalies, Chicago's got the advantage, and it's not particularly close.
If Chicago wins the goalie battle, the special teams battle goes to Nashville. Their power play converts at slightly higher pace than Chicago's, and their penalty kill is significantly stronger. However, this isn't a series that's going to be won or lost on the back of special teams units.
Besides the difference in the penalty kill success rates, the largest discrepancy between the two teams above is in the 5v5 GF% category. Sure, neither team comes close to touching the Washington Capitals' 5v5 GF%, but in fairness, nobody did. And both Nashville and Chicago finished in the top third of the NHL, which means we should see goals at a fairly good clip during this series. However, it's Chicago with the clear edge here. They've just scored a bit more at even strength than the Predators, and if you combine that with the fact that Chicago also has the better goalie, it looks like it's the Blackhawks that should, hypothetically, be able to win this series.
Why You Should Cheer For The Blackhawks
Credit where credit is due: Chicago is the closest thing we've seen to a true dynasty in the cap era. If they win a fourth Cup with most of their core in tact, that'll cement their legacy even further. Also, this team has some plucky young rookies who are pretty easy to root for. Namely, I have a soft spot for Yale boy John Hayden, but Ryan Hartman and Nick Schmaltz have both been fun to watch this season. Frankly, that's about all I've got for you. Like, are three Cups not enough?
Why You Should Cheer For The Predators
Literally nothing would please me more than to see PK Subban advance further in the playoffs than the Montreal Canadiens, so that's reason enough. But also, the Predators are a plucky team with arguably the best blue line in the NHL, and their forward corps aren't too shabby either. Filip Forsberg is always a delight to watch, and I for one have really enjoyed Viktor Arvidsson's breakout season. But really, the main reason to cheer for the Preds is to spite the Canadiens.
My head says Chicago, but not as resoundingly as certain sports network panels would have you believe. And because I occasionally have a contrarian streak, I'm going to swing Nashville's way. Chicago's got tons more playoff experience and superior goaltending. Nashville's got the fierce desire to prove that they're finally real contenders and the best defensive corps in the NHL. It's going to be a close one, but I say PK and the Preds knock the Hawks out of the playoffs in the first round for the second year running. Seven games, though. Chicago's not going down easy.