Chicago Blackhawks (50-23-9, first in Central Division) vs. Nashville Predators (41-29-12, second wild card in Western Conference)
Why you have to watch: The Blackhawks under GM Stan Bowman have once again retooled on the fly to hit the playoffs as the Western Conference's best team. Seven rookies combined for 105 points for Chicago this season. Coming off an emotional seven-game, first-round loss to the St. Louis Blues last spring, the Blackhawks bounced back with 109 points, their second-highest point total ever. ... The Predators, meanwhile, are playoff bound for the third straight season, but they've never been past the second round. ... This spring marks the first playoff appearance without former captain Shea Weber since Weber came into the league in 2005-06. It took half a season for the Predators to sort through the leadership vacuum created by Weber's trade to the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for former Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban. ... Still, the Predators boast one of the most dangerous lines in the league with Ryan Johansen, Viktor Arvidsson and Filip Forsberg, and one of the deepest, most dangerous blue lines in the league.
Head to head: Nashville defeated Chicago on opening night and then lost four straight times to the Blackhawks and was outscored 18-10 over the season series. ... The Predators have the worst road record of any playoff team (17-20-4), and with Games 1 and 2 set at the United Center in Chicago, the Preds need to correct their road woes in a hurry to avoid going in a hole early. Not that it gets any easier at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville -- Chicago's 24 road wins were second in the NHL.
Injury fallout: Veteran C Artem Anisimov will return for the Blackhawks after missing almost a month with a leg injury. This will allow coach Joel Quenneville to reunite Anisimov with Patrick Kane, who finished the season with 89 points, and Artemi Panarin, who followed up his Rookie of the Year season with 74 points.
Goalie advantage: Despite winning at least 30 games for the sixth consecutive season and having won two Stanley Cups in that time, Blackhawks G Corey Crawford is still underappreciated. That's life when toiling in the shadow of more famous teammates Kane, captain Jonathan Toews and two-time Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith. And, to be fair, there was a slight drop-off in his level of play as Crawford went from a .924 save percentage last season to .918 this season. His goals-against average went up to 2.55 from 2.37 last season. The Preds made life miserable for Crawford two springs ago, and they'll need to get to him again and in a hurry. ... The most important part of the goaltending equation is veteran Predator Pekka Rinne. Rinne has struggled with consistency the past couple of seasons, and while he's been very good of late -- allowing just 14 goals in his past nine games -- his career playoff save percentage of .912 isn't good enough. The 34-year-old needs to be the best goaltender in this series by a sizable margin for the Predators to have a chance.
Coaching advantage: Predators coach Peter Laviolette won a Cup for the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006 and coached the Philadelphia Flyers to the 2010 finals, where he lost to coach Joel Quenneville, who won his first Cup for the Blackhawks. ... Quenneville doesn't get enough credit for his work, but he's No. 2 in career wins, and he's a sure-fire Hall of Famer who knows how to push the right buttons at this time of year.
Prediction: One of these years the Predators will break through. Top center Johansen and defenseman Subban will inject new blood into the rivalry, and Arvidsson has been a revelation, with 31 goals and 61 points. But -- and you knew this was coming -- there's just too much to like about the Blackhawks, who had six players score 20 or more goals, to expect an upset. Blackhawks in 7.