Blackhawks head to Nashville for Round 1 - let the playoffs begin!

The Blackhawks finished out their season in a ho-hum 3-2 loss to the Avalanche. Since Colorado had already been eliminated and Chicago was already locked into third in the Central, Coach Joel Quenneville opted to rest a few of his top players in advance of next week's playoffs. So the team can be forgiven for playing less than their best, in a game that ultimately had no meaning for them.

With the regular season finished, the Blackhawks end with a record of 48-27-6 (102 points), and a +41 goal differential. Corey Crawford, who finished with a record of 32-20-5, 2.27 GAA, and .924 sv%, shares William Jennings Trophy honors with the Canadiens' Carey Price (44-16-6, 1.96 GAA, .933 sv%). However, Price is far, far likelier to not just get nominated for, but to win the Vezina this year - and potentially the Hart as well.

The Blackhawks recalled goalie Antti Raanta and defenseman Kyle Cumiskey from the Rockford IceHogs. The IceHogs have qualified for this year's AHL Calder Cup Playoffs for the first time in several seasons. Goalie Mac Carruth was recalled from the ECHL's Indy Fuel to fill the goalie hole in Rockford.

It was announced on Monday morning that Patrick Kane has been medically cleared for contact, and the full statement from Head Team Physician Dr. Michael Terry reads as follows:

“Patrick Kane suffered a broken left clavicle on February 24, and underwent successful surgery to repair the fracture on February 25. Patrick has been working extremely diligently with his rehabilitation and has recently returned to full-contact practice without any difficulty. After discussions with Patrick and the team, and examining Patrick today, we collectively feel it is appropriate, with minimal risk, for him to return to full participation.”

While Coach Quenneville made it sound like Kane might be as early as Game 1 during this morning's post-practice press scrum, Kane himself was more pragmatic, stating that although he was eager to return, he doesn't want to "go back to Square 1 again". The original estimate for his recovery was around 12 weeks - or, roughly around the time that the Western Conference Final would be ramping up.

Quenneville also tinkered with the lines at practice this morning, and players practicing off the main lines were Antoine Vermette and Andrew Desjardins. Kimmo Timonen returned to the ice and was paired with Michal Rozsival. Quenneville's coaching style - as expressed by the man himself - is that players earn their ice time, and Vermette hasn't performed up to expectations since arriving in Chicago.

Team President John McDonough took in the practice at Johnny's Icehouse today. There is no doubt that there will be some big moves coming this summer to alleviate the cap crunch; so it is felt that the time for the Blackhawks to win another Stanley Cup is now, this season, before what is likely to be at least 2-3 core players traded to make cap space.

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LOOKING AHEAD TO ROUND 1

First, a quick look at the schedule. Nashville finished ahead of Chicago in the standings, so home ice advantage is theirs. The two cities are just 80 minutes apart by air, and in the same time zone, so it's an easy "commute" series for the Blackhawks.

Round 1 schedule:

Game 1 at Nashville - Wed. April 15, 7:30pm CT - CSN-CH (Chicago), FS-TN (Nashville), NBCSN (US), TVA, SN360
Game 2 at Nashville - Fri. April 17, 8:30pm CT - CSN-CH, NBCSN, TVA, SN, SPSO
Game 3 at Chicago - Sun. April 19, 2pm CT - NBC, TVA, SN
Game 4 at Chicago - Tue. April 21, 8:30pm CT - CSN-CH, FS-TN, NBCSN, SN, TVA
Game 5 at Nashville - Thu. April 23, time TBD - CSN-CH, FS-TN
Game 6 at Chicago - Sat. April 25, time TBD - broadcasts TBD
Game 7 at Nashville - Mon. April 27, time TBD - CSN-CH, FS-TN

This will be the Predators' first appearance in the playoffs since 2012, and they were well on their way towards winning the Presidents' Trophy when the team took a late-season slide in the standings. They still finished well enough to grab home-ice advantage in the Central.

Goaltender Pekka Rinne is the major reason why. After hip surgery and a subsequent infection, Rinne lost much of the 2013-2014 season to LTIR. He returned for a dozen or so games at the end of last season, and didn't play as well as expected. The Tennessean reported that Rinne completely overhauled his off-season routine last summer: diet, trainer, everything. As a result, he returned to training camp in amazing shape and dominated most of the season, going 29-6-2 before a lower-body injury sidelined him for  awhile, and both his and the team's numbers haven't been as good since his return.

However, Rinne's return to dominant form, combined with a new coach, Peter Laviolette, bringing a new system of play to the team, which the players all bought into - heralded the arrival a new era of Predators hockey. This isn't Trotz's team anymore, choking opponents with defense. This is a team that knows they have an offensive punch. They know they have a goalie that can steal a series.

And most of all, they have motivation: a well-developed rivalry with the Chicago Blackhawks. Nashville has become a popular stomping ground for visiting fans, particularly among the Central division, who recognize the Tennessee capital as an up-and-coming hotbed for tourism. With a new convention center steadily hosting major conventions across the street from Bridgestone, Nashville has also suddenly become more expensive, at least for hotels.

SO, YOU'RE VISITING NASHVILLE....

Hockey tickets still remain affordable compared to home, but the Predators - at least, the front office, and the fans - have not been thrilled at the size of the "traveling" contingencies of some of their rivals, most notably, Chicago and St. Louis.

Nashville is a friendly city, and is more than happy to welcome tourism dollars to town. What they don't appreciate - really, what fan base would? - are visitors who turn into drunken louts when turned loose on Lower Broadway, who become beligerent and abusive towards the locals. They're certainly not against visiting fans who come down and enjoy themselves without breaking their city.

They also hate that visiting fans don't respect local traditions regarding the anthem.

Back home in Chicago, fans cheer and clap their way through the American anthem; it is a tradition that dates back to 1985. It became famous during the 1991 All-Star Game, just after the start of the Persian Gulf war. The tradition fills the United Center with plenty of energy, but it is something unique to the UC, and it should remain as such.

People at other arenas are aware of the tradition and how powerful it can be in the UC, but it doesn't ring as strongly on the road, and at times, if the visiting contingency is smaller, can even sound quite awkward. 

Here's the other thing: fans cheering the anthem at the UC make it so loud - especially during the playoffs, that it really amps up the players. Hearing that night after night on the road, in varying degrees of volume, takes away from what makes it special as the "home ice advantage" of the United Center experience. Some might argue it helps the Blackhawks play better on the road, but the Blackhawks almost always accrue more ROW at home than on the road, and this year they collected 1 more ROW on the road than at home.

The players can see the amount of visiting red jerseys in the stands; they've been quoted in interviews as being well-aware of how good a "traveling fanbase" the Blackhawks have become. And it's not simply people traveling to watch their team play; it's people who live locally to other markets coming out to enjoy a game.

If you're taking in a Blackhawks game away from the United Center, you're essentially a fan ambassador, and the local fans who meet you are going to judge the entire fanbase on - well, you, and your behavior. The Blackhawks could also help their fans encourage respect of the local traditions in the arenas they visit.

Think about it this way: If you invited a bunch of people over to a dinner party, you'd be pretty pissed if they showed up already half-shoshed, threw up on your couch, treated you rudely, and then whistled and clapped while you said "Grace". Those dinner guests would be showing you no respect, and you wouldn't be eager to have them back in your house.

It's this combination of two reasons - 1) it's a UC tradition that makes zero sense on the road; and 2) it's just flat-out rude to the home team - that it seems weird that Blackhawks fans would insist on doing this at road games, and even odder than some Chicago media folks would seem to encourage doing so. They certainly get annoyed at the UC when visiting fans throw in their take on anthems, such as Winnipeg Jets fans shouting 'True North!' during the Canadian anthem.  

It's pretty smart that the Predators have decided the way that for their fans to combat this 'invasion' of Chicago fans and insistence on cheering through the anthem is for their home fans to sing along with the anthem. Many Southern markets prefer crowd silence during the anthem, so this is a change for Nashville fans, who wear their patriotism proudly on their sleeves. But it went over well in the final two games of the regular season, and the team will continue it in the playoffs, and they hope it will drown out the visitors.

Besides, the sound of 17,000+ sports fans singing the national anthem simultaneously is pretty powerful, too; quite stirring, indeed. Here's hoping that it becomes not just Nashville's Band-Aid for major rivals, but a new tradition in 'Smashville'.

As for the product on the ice: while Nashville hasn't been playing up to par, neither have the Blackhawks, although they've done better-than-okay with Patrick Kane out of the lineup.

Whichever team re-finds their game fastest in this series is likely to break through the the second round of the playoffs.

 

Prediction: Chicago in 6.

 

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