Each Wednesday throughout the regular season, Kevin Weekes will be offering his pluses and minuses for the teams competing in the “Wednesday Night Hockey” games on NBCSN in his Weekes on the Web blog.
The Nashville Predators and Chicago Blackhawks play the second game of a three-game set on Wednesday (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TVAS).
Nashville (25-21-1) has won each of its six games against Chicago (21-20-5) this season and is in fourth place in the eight-team Discover Central Division, one point ahead of the Dallas Stars and four ahead of the Blackhawks. The top four teams will make the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Here’s my breakdown of the game.
Pluses: Juuse Saros has emerged as their No. 1 goalie. He’s 16-9-0 with a 2.22 goals-against average, .928 save percentage and two shutouts in 28 games (27 starts) and is a big reason they’ve climbed back into the playoff race, going 14-5-0 in their past 19 games.
Coach John Hynes said Nashville has been better on the forecheck and has competed harder defensively since its 11-16-1 start. He’s right, because through their past 19 games, the Predators lead the NHL in goals against per game (1.89) and are third on the penalty kill in that span (88.9 percent).
Nashville also has had numerous injuries but has shown mental toughness. It looked as if the Predators were going to be sellers heading into the NHL Trade Deadline on April 12, but they’ve turned things around.
Minuses: Those injuries have piled up. Nashville is without forwards Filip Forsberg, Brad Richardson, Eeli Tolvanen and Mathieu Olivier, as well as defensemen Luca Sbisa, Mark Borowiecki, Alexandre Carrier and Dante Fabbro. We know how elite of a scorer and playmaker Forsberg can be, so that has hurt. And center Matt Duchene recently returned after missing 22 games with a lower-body injury.
This isn’t a knock on Roman Josi, but the defenseman hasn’t played as well as he is capable of, with 28 points (six goals, 22 assists) in 40 games this season after scoring at least 12 goals and 40 points in seven previous seasons. He’s also a minus-10 after he was plus-22 last season to win the Norris Trophy as the top defenseman in the NHL.
Pluses: When the Blackhawks didn’t re-sign goalie Corey Crawford, there were questions as to how they would fare with a largely inexperienced group. Well, rookie Kevin Lankinen and Malcom Subban each has played well. Lankinen is 16-13-4 with a 2.89 GAA, .911 save percentage and two shutouts in 33 games and Subban is 5-5-1 with a 2.78 GAA, .913 save percentage and two shutouts in 12 games. goals-against average. Those are pretty good numbers without a veteran goalie on the team.
Patrick Kane continues to quietly go about his business. The forward is third in the NHL in scoring with 57 points (15 goals, 42 assists) in 46 games, and is five goals from his 14th straight season with at least 20 goals. And forward Alex DeBrincat, who leads Chicago in goals (23) and is second in points (44) is well on his way to becoming a star. He had a down season in 2019-20 with 18 goals after scoring 41 the season before and 28 during his rookie season in 2017-18.
Minuses: It has been tough on the Blackhawks to not to have their captain and leader on and off the ice in Jonathan Toews, who hasn’t played this season because of an illness. We know what he brings; this inexperienced group surely would benefit from his presence.
Chicago hasn’t done much to help its young goalies on the penalty kill. It ranks 26th in the NHL (75.8 percent), including allowing at least two power-play goals in nine games this season. The good news is the PK hasn’t allowed a goal in five games (13 chances); the Blackhawks are 3-2-0 in that span.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. Will Nashville continue its dominance against Chicago?
2. Goalie matchup (likely Saros vs. Lankinen)
3. Can Kane help the Blackhawks close the gap on the Predators and tighten the Central race?