Another matchup thats set in stone, Chicago vs Nashville.
Chicago owns the season series with 4 wins, 2 losses. Chicago has all the pieces in play to win another cup, building on their dynasty, however, the Nashville Predators have made alot of changes in the past few seasons from coaching, to adding scoring, drafted and dealt for some young studs and are a completely different team from the Nashville of yesteryear.
Lets start by looking at Nashvilles keys points:
Goaltending - Pekka Rinne has been one of the top 5 goalies all season and is a huge part of Nashvilles success. Although his play has waned the in the month or so, expect him to be in full dominant form against their divisional rival Blackhawks. Rinne has the ability to steal games outright, although he shouldnt have to with Nashvilles amazing defense. If Rinne is on his A game, Nashville have a good chance at upsetting the Hawks. Yes, I said upsetting, in my opinion the Hawks ought to be the cup favorites this year, so anyone who does beat them will be an upset. However, that being said, I would not bat an eye if Nashville did complete an upset, they have to tools to do it, starting with Rinne.
Defense - While both of these teams are at the top of the league in defense, Nashville has a deeper defense then Chicago, when you get beyond the Webers, Keiths and Seabrooks, Nashvilles remaining top six out ranks Chicago's, albeit not by much. Shea Weber will log huge minutes, and being in his prime this should be no problem. Using his size, reach, and amazing puck control he may be able to keep the Hawks snipers at bay and cause some tantrums. When he's not on the ice all of Ellis, Jones and Franson are more then capable of shutting down the Hawks top 6. Nashville has the luxury of being able to be comfortable no matter what D pairing is on the ice. Weber also gives Nashville a huge boost on the PP, although Chicago is a relativly diciplined team and will likely limit Nashvilles PP.
Offense: Nashville has never been known as a high scoring team, not in recent years anyways, however the additions of Ribiero, Neal, and the rising of Forsberg have helped the Preds score goals in bunches this season. Neal knows what it takes to win a Stanley Cup, and I fully expect him to be the lean to guy for the Preds to get those clutch goals. If he can get some space, as hard as it will be against Seabrook/Keith, he should be able to set up a few good chances.
Experience: Nashville is yet to go beyond the second round of the playoffs, and its been a little while since they've played in late April, but with a younger squad and a prime #1 Dman and Goalie they should be able to make a series of it.
Kane- When will he return, will he be playing at his capacity when he comes back? Kane is obviously a critical part of the Hawks 2 previous cups, but, the Blackhawks do have more then eneough re-enforcements to score if he doesnt return, or doesnt return in top form. I don't think his injury will factor much, at least not into this series, maybe down the line.
Goaltending - Crawford has won a cup, he is often critisized for riding the coattails of a highly competent defense, and a strong puck possession team that can and will score its way out of trouble. However, a look at Crawfords numbers shows that he is, in fact a good eneough goalie, and thats all a team like Chicago needs, someone who is good eneough, and can make the odd clutch save. I think Crawford has proven he can do this.
The rest of the crew - Toews, Keith, Seabrook, Sharp, and Hossa have all been there done that and beaten the best to win 2 cups. Brad Richards on the third line is an excellant depth player, having won a cup himself he too knows what it takes. I certainly don't think Chicago will walk all over Nashville, first rounds can often be the hardest, until the finals that is.
Prediction, Hawks take it in 5 or 6, while I say 5 games, I think they will all be very close, 4-3, 3-2, things like that. I just can't see the Hawks bowing out to the Predators. You never know though!!!