Weekend preview: Blackhawks vs Nashville double-header

The Central division is highly competitive among all the teams, and the Blackhawks-Predators is no different. They match up this weekend for two games: one in Nashville on Saturday night; one in Chicago on Sunday evening.

Last season, the rivalry was turned up a notch when the Blackhawks knocked the Predators out of the first round of the playoffs in a tightly-contested group of games. It was capped what was perhaps the most memorable game for the Blackhawks entire playoffs run: game 5 in Chicago, when Patrick Kane kept the Blackhawks in the series by notching a tying goal with just 13 seconds left in regulation play, and Marian Hossa scored the game-winner in overtime.

Fast forward halfway through the current season. Nashville took the first matchup in the United Center, surging back in the third period from being down 1-2 to win 3-2. In their second meeting, it was an exciting game in Nashville; the Preds got a tying goal late in the third to push the game to overtime, and ended up winning in a shootout. Their first game in Chicago was a vital one for the Blackhawks: a 4-1 win, the 3rd-of-3 set of homestead wins before Christmas.

So, going into this weekend, the series stands Chicago 1, Nashville 2. After this weekend - unless they meet in the playoffs - their last matchup will be February 24th in Nashville.

Right now, the Predators are missing a few players: winger Martin Erat (upper body), center Matthew Lombardi (concussion), center Cal O'Reilly (broken leg), winger Steve Sullivan (lower body), winger Jordin Tootoo (personal leave), and now defenseman Shane O'Brien . Of all these players, O'Brien will probably be the most missed for Nashville. The former Canuck is gritty, absorbing blocks (33) and more importantly, laying down the hits -- 97, 3rd on team after Bouillon and Weber). O'Brien was suspended for two games after a high-sitcking incident against Florida's Stephen Weiss. O'Brien is considered a repeat offender, and is forfeiting $39,024.40 in salary in addition to being out two games.

Depsite being riddled with injuries and absences, however, the Preds have gone 6-4 in their past 10 games since last playing Chicago, including a 5-game win streak to kick off 2011.

During the same period, Chicago has gone 5-4, including their current 3-game winning streak - and are going into Nashville with their last two games being shutouts against the Ottawa Senators and the NY Islanders.

On the positive side for Chicago, the team has started off 2011 with the entire team healthy - finally. Rookie goalie Corey Crawford has been on fire for the team, with a 1.89 GAA and .933 sv% over his past 9 games.

The best news? Chicago's shots-against average is just 28 in those same 9 games. Of particular note was the game against the hot Dallas Stars, allowing just 22 SOGs. Whatever the reasons for the Blackhawks' defensive issues early in the season, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are finally starting to climb out of the +/- hole and look like the D-men we know them to be. Brian Campbell continues his solid play; Niklas Hjalmarsson has settled down; Jassen Cullimore was returned to Rockford; Nick Boynton has been off the ice; Jordan Hendry was returned to his position on the blue line, and most exciting for Blackhawks fans: prospect Nick Leddy was called up from Rockford and has made a definite impact the last few games, clicking with Hendry as the third defensive pairing.

It has been kept relatively low key, but this is worth paying attention to: assuming Leddy starts tonight in Nashville, this means that the Blackhawks intend to keep him up in the big club, because this will be his 10th game of the season and therefore begins the burn on his first year of his entry-level contract. Leddy was one of the top talks coming out of prospect and training camps this summer. He played six games earlier in the season when Brian Campbell was out, then returned to Rockford, and recently took home the bronze with the U.S. team at the World Junior Championships. Since returning to the Blackhawks, he's averaged 15:41 TOI per game (average 14:44 in 9 games), and is a smart, solid defenseman. He's already logged more average TOI than both Cullimore and Hendry (12:37 in 36, and 10:36 in 24, respectively) and it won't take much for him to surpass Nick Boynton (16:06 in 37), either.

Expect the game in Nashville to be hard-hitting, gritty and close; the Preds will want to earn a win in front of their home crowd. Don't expect the game to be any less gritty on Sunday, but the UC fanatics should help give the Blackhawks the edge.

It will be an exciting weekend for Central division hockey.