Under the current scheduling format where teams play six games within the division (compared to eight in the three years following the lockout), home-and-home contests have become more rare. However, there’s a pretty substantial one taking place in the Central Division this weekend.
Nashville and Chicago will play in each other’s barn on Saturday and Sunday in what sets up to be a crucial two-game swing for both clubs. Going into the weekend, both teams sit in the Western Conference playoff picture with home-ice in sight.
These two are budding rivals courtesy of last spring’s playoff matchup, where the ‘Hawks advanced in six games. The Preds have taken two of their first three meetings this season. Look for this home-and-home to have a playoff feel to it.
“When you play a back-to-back, you get under each other’s skin,” Colin Wilson said. “You remember stuff from the night before, so there will definitely be more of a playoff atmosphere.”
The first half of the back-to-back will be played in Music City on Saturday, followed by the tilt in the Windy City on Sunday.
“Playing Chicago, I think everyone has in the back of their minds what happened last year,” Pekka Rinne said. “The last few years against Chicago it’s been good battles, and you know… they don’t like us and we don’t like them. It brings a little bit more to the game.”
Nashville has been one of the NHL’s more streaky teams this season. After a five-game skid during the holidays, they won six in a row prior to Thursday’s loss in Florida. Wilson realizes how important it is to stop the bleeding quicker than they have earlier this year.
“It’s all about mindset,” Wilson said. “As soon as we lose another, some of the guys may go ‘Here we go again’. If we get a good win here, we’ll realize that we can turn it around pretty quickly.”
Since returning from his knee injury on Dec. 23, Rinne has compiled a 1.57 goals-against average and .944 save percentage in nine games. During the recent win streak, he had a .967 save percentage and surrendered five goals in five games. He is feeling healthy and is in that groove that Preds fans grew accustomed to seeing down the stretch the last couple years.
“Obviously it goes hand in hand with your team play,” Rinne said of his recent success. “Every now and then a goalie can steal a game, but we’ve been playing really well as a team and that reflects on the goalie, too.”
Aside from Rinne’s stellar play, the Preds have been scoring goals pretty consistently. Overall, the team has scored 26 goals in the last seven games.
Captain Shea Weber now leads the team in points with 26, courtesy of his current seven-game point streak (11 points total). Sergei Kostitsyn and Patric Hornqvist (5 goals and 3 assists each), David Legwand (7 points), along with Ryan Suter (6 assists, +13 rating) have also stepped up over that span.
“Each line has a little bit of the elements that you want,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “You’ve got some speed and smarts on every line. You’ve got a guy that is really hard on the puck, goes to the net and those hard areas, and then you’ve got a good playmaker.”
The Preds will be facing a streaky team in its own right. Coming into the year, goaltending was a question mark. Off-season addition Marty Turco has struggled, but Corey Crawford is picking up the slack. The 26-year-old rookie has a 15-8-1 record and 2.14 goals-against, and tallied his first two shutouts of the season in the last two games.
“Lately, they’ve been playing really well,” Trotz said. “They’ve been playing a strong 200-foot game, they’ve been getting good goaltending, the penalty kill is coming around and the power play is number one in the league. There’s not too many elements to their game that isn’t going well for them right now.”
Chicago is starting to come into their own by winning their last three games. Prior to that though, they dropped four of five and were outside the top eight in the West. They have also regained health as the likes of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa missed time in the first half.
“They have some individuals with high skill,” Rinne said. “Year after year it’s one of the top power plays, too. It’s not just the forwards – they have some really good defensemen. We have to play well defensively and get into their zone.”
“We got knocked out by them last year, so people won’t take them lightly,” Wilson said. “They’ve got a lot of stars on their team. With how close the division and the conference is, you have to win these games.”
The Preds come in with 52 points and in fifth place, with Chicago sitting one point behind at 51.
“They’re like playoff games,” Trotz said. “We can either get separation or they can jump over us – that’s how close it is. There’s virtually no separation. Either way, what happens this weekend – good, bad and different – there’s still a lot of hockey to be played.”
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