The Nashville Predators will open their season tonight, while the Chicago Blackhawks are playing in Game 2
Some Central Division series can have one-sided results depending on the season. Last year, the Minnesota Wild kept the Chicago Blackhawks completely quiet in the regular season.
But in the Joel Quenneville era, games between the Blackhawks and Nashville Predators have gone on a pretty even path. Neither team has been bad for the last several years, with the Predators primarily chasing Chicago and playing the Blackhawks evenly.
This season will be an interesting one when these two teams meet. Both sides worked on improving their defense in the offseason, and the Predators ended up with perhaps the best top-to-bottom blue line in the league.
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We get to see both teams’ offseason moves in action tonight and tomorrow in a home-and-home two-game series. They’ll start tonight at Bridgestone Arena before transitioning to the United Center on Saturday.
But let’s focus on tonight first, beginning with the projected starting lineups.
Blackhawks’, Predators’ starting lineups
Coach Q has gone to the blender early after not being impressed with the Blackhawks’ returns in Game 1 of the season. Only the fourth line remains unchanged, which is kind of frustrating for the sole reason of Tootoo’s continued usage. Q claims he needs to use Tootoo *more*. I’m not sure that’s the issue, Coach.
As for the other three lines, Panarin and Motte move up one line apiece, while Hossa drops to the third line. The traditional second line was the only one to offer consistent pressure in the offensive zone against St. Louis, but Q wants to spread things out a little more.
What most intrigues me is the third line. I actually wanted to see more of Hartman-Kruger-Motte, but putting Hossa on that line might actually make it even better both ways. Hartman is just going to need to play better tonight than he did Wednesday (his goal notwithstanding).
There are plenty of familiar faces in play here, though Fiala on the top line is a newer one. He’s played in seven NHL games between the regular season and playoffs, so obviously coach Peter Laviolette and the Preds have high expectations for the 20-year-old.
New captain Fisher will center a pretty potent second line. The bottom six offers a lot of questions, though it features guys the Blackhawks have seen some of here and there. Smith will pot or come close to potting a goal, and Ribeiro will try to make the Blackhawks commit penalties.
The top defensive pairing here is insane, both a even-strength and on the powerplay. It would behoove the Blackhawks to stay out of the box tonight. The second pairing is also really strong, while the third is entirely serviceable but one the Blackhawks will want to exploit.
Rinne gets the start at home, and he could start both of these games, if only because the Preds haven’t played yet this season.
Three Blackhawks to watch at Bridgestone Arena
I thought Motte had a fine regular-season NHL debut on the third line. Q must have thought so as well, because he’s pushed the youngster into the coveted left wing spot alongside Anisimov and Kane.
Motte has good playmaking ability and speed, and those will be two things critical to him keeping up with Anisimov and Kane. He’ll need to keep his head up and his ears open, especially while skating on visiting ice.
Kane is going to be looked to to produce no matter who he plays with, while Anisimov will be expected to provide his typical two-way game. Motte just needs to stick with what got him on the roster in order not to slow the second line. He can’t be afraid to shoot the puck when he has the chance or pass in spots where his linemates are calling for the puck.
For all the concern about Hossa being too slow to keep up if he was placed on the top line, I thought he looked really good against the Blues. He seemed to have gained half a step in the offseason, most of which he spent recovering from a lot of short years (minus his time in the World Cup).
Now Hossa can try to slay bums on the bottom six. While Hartman is still adjusting to a role on a two-way line, Kruger will be a good partner for Hossa. The two looked really comfortable together in spurts doing the 2016 postseason. They’re both defensively responsible, and Hossa can do a little more playmaking while Kruger goes in for the kill at the net.
I’m curious to see how much Q will play this line. Of course, it’ll depend some on if the Blackhawks jump out to a lead or fall behind early. But the third line didn’t get a ton of play Wednesday. With Hossa on it, the trio may get more work tonight.
I usually don’t put Keith in posts like this because we all know what we’re getting from him. And we still do tonight. But he has the great improvement of not having to drag a super-sluggish anchor in Trevor van Riemsdyk. Hjalmarsson will pair up with Keith to form a pretty potent counter to Josi-Subban.
I thought Keith looked good in the opener, though he was occasionally limited by having to make up for TVR’s shortcomings. With Hjammer back in the equation, I think Keith can get back to his typical game.
That’ll mean pushing play from the blue line in addition to playing lockdown defense (he has a great partner to help with the latter, now). If Keith can get rolling in both directions, it’ll go a long way to taking some pressure off the offense and pushing the Blackhawks toward a .500 record.