First-round breakdown: Hawks-Preds
The home team is a league darling, a star-studded outfit with an appeal that has TV executives salivating for a long playoff run. It's also an Original Six club with a deep-rooted history and a recent market rejuvenation that has made Chicago the place to be again for hockey.
The challengers are from Music City, where hockey has a small but loyal following, a team with only 11 seasons under its belt in its young NHL history. It's a club with absolutely no national buzz -- the ugly ducklings of the NHL, if you will.
None of that will matter, of course, once the puck drops at a rocking United Center on Wednesday night, when the Preds and Hawks begin their first playoff series against each other. Chicago won the regular-season series 4-2-0, all six games decided in regulation.
1. Hawks goaltending: You didn't think we'd get that deep into this series preview without touching on this, huh? The Blackhawks are deep up front and talented on the blue line, but, yes, have question marks in goal. Cristobal Huet began the season as the starter, but lost his job to rookie Antti Niemi. The Finnish netminder's numbers are terrific, but also misleading. The Hawks allowed the fewest shots against this season in the NHL, so just how the inexperienced Niemi will react when he's really tested by tough competition in his first NHL playoffs appearance remains to be seen.
Of course, the fact the Hawks allow on average the fewest shots against per game is exactly what you want when you're unsure about your goaltending. Chicago allowed only 22.8 shots per game on average in the six games against Nashville this season, outshooting them 190-137. Interestingly, Niemi played only one of those six games, allowing four goals in a win on Dec. 27. Nashville's only edge in this series is clearly in goal with the terrific Pekka Rinne.
2. Remember us?: The Hawks and Preds haven't played each other since December, so it's hard to say just how much one can take from their six-game set since it was played in the first half of the season. The Hawks outscored the Preds 15-12, a pretty low-scoring series (4.5 goals per game total) when you consider the Hawks' potent offense. But again, we're not sure the season series has that much significance.
3. Special teams: Hard to figure on a 100-point season for the Preds when they struggled so badly on special teams, finishing 24th on the power play and 28th on the penalty kill. By contrast, the Hawks were an outstanding fourth on the penalty kill, although surprisingly only a middle-of-the-road 16th on the power play.
4. This is the year: With a franchise-record 52 wins this season, the Blackhawks are obviously built to be competitive for years to come. However, they likely won't have this kind of depth for a while. Salary-cap implications and new contract extensions kicking in next season for Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith will force Chicago to make some tough decisions this summer, which will see defections of players the team would have otherwise wanted to keep. In other words, the time is now. The Hawks may not be this talented again for a long time.
5. Blue-line heaven: Can you think of a playoff series that pits this kind of blue-line talent? This is Nashville's true strength, led by Shea Weber, Ryan Suter and Dan Hamhuis. The Hawks counter with Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson. OK, the third name for Chicago should really be Brian Campbell and his injury absence has hurt the Hawks (his 23-plus minutes a night are certainly hard to replace). Chicago will lean heavily on Keith and Seabrook, and that's something to keep an eye on if the series goes the distance.
• Preds blueliner Shea Weber versus Chicago's top offensive stars: We all witnessed how the physically imposing Weber helped shut down Alex Ovechkin in the Olympic quarterfinals, and that will no doubt be the kind of assignment the Preds will look for, whether it's against Kane, Toews or Marian Hossa. Of course, that may be the issue: How many Hawks star forwards can you cover in one game?
• Chicago: Fourth-line forward Colin Fraser had four goals in his last four games of the season after scoring two through his first 66 games. Goalie Cristobal Huet appeared in only six games after the Olympics and registered just two wins.
• Preds coach Barry Trotz, one of the best in the game, gets every ounce of value from his frugal payroll, and his team rarely, if ever, gets outworked. But Nashville is simply overmatched in this series by a Hawks team groomed for this postseason. Hawks in five games.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.