Hawks, Preds open home-and-home in Music City
BLACKHAWKS (24-9-3) at PREDATORS (22-12-3)
: Chicago 7-3-0; Nashville 7-2-1
: The Hawks and Preds have split their four previous meetings this year, with Nashville taking the last matchup, 4-1, on Dec. 4 at the United Center.
: Chicago comes into Nashville looking to gain some more separation from the upstart Preds as the two teams play the first end of a home-and-home. The Hawks currently hold first in the Central by just four points.
: With Chicago holding a four-point lead over Nashville for first in the Central and four points at stake between these two over a 26-hour period this weekend, the Hawks may be playing as well as they have all season at just the right time. While the offense has almost never been in doubt -- and true to reputation, winger Patrick Kane
has led the way with 12 points in his last nine games -- it is the Blackhawks' defense that is making them a well-rounded contender.
This is hardly limited to just the defensemen, though Brian Campbell
is producing like he was expected to when he signed his contract, with four points and a plus-5 rating in his last five games. Rather, both of the Hawks' netminders are leading the way. Cristobal Huet
and backup Antti Niemi
have combined for four shutouts in the last six games. Huet has only gone 3-2 in his last five starts, but has posted a 1.20 goals-against average in that span. Not to be outdone, Niemi has won his last five, with a remarkable 0.98 GAA to boot. With Chicago's goaltending matching its offense, the Hawks will be a tough team to beat.
: Once again, coach Barry Trotz has his unsung troops competing for the playoffs, and this season's performance may have been one of his most remarkable so far. While the Preds started off slow, they have been among the League's best heading into the Christmas break, pulling to within four points of the West-leading Hawks. Trotz admits that Nashville's style early this year was "a little too cute," but with the Preds playing an aggressive style of late, the wins just keep coming -- six in their last eight games to be exact.
It is difficult to find a forward who hasn't made a significant contribution lately, with Patric Hornqvist's eight points in his last five games leading the way. Martin Erat and David Legwand have also been chipping in with 13 points in the last six games between the two of them. With Dan Ellis wresting the starting job back from Pekka Rinne -- and winning five of his last seven starts in the process -- the Preds have found both production and stability that will serve them well going into two suddenly huge meetings with the Hawks.
: Weeks after signing a long-term extension that will likely keep the young blueliner in Chicago for the rest of his career, Duncan Keith
is making the Hawks' front office look smart, as he's tallied six points in his last four games. ... For Nashville, Marcel Goc has tallied seven points in his last four outings
: Ben Eager and Cam Barker are both listed as questionable for Chicago, while Nashville found out this week that Jerred Smithson will be out indefinitely with a broken left hand.
: While Keith, Campbell and Brent Seabrook
have given Chicago a staunch blue line, Huet and Niemi have still had to work. Over the last five starts for each, the two have faced an average of 25.5 shots per game, while racking up a combined .957 save percentage.
: While Chicago was widely expected to be challenging for Western supremacy before this season, Nashville was scarcely heard of. The Preds can have fans and scribes alike singing a different tune soon, but they will have to take advantage of what is now a massive opportunity with two straight games against the Hawks. With a potential tie for first place hanging in the balance, this is an enormous chance for Nashville to make waves, and despite public perception, they stand a decent chance to do so -- the Hawks and Preds have split their 10 meetings since the start of last season.