The Stanley Cup Playoffs are back which means it’s time to serve up another Last Word On Sports series preview. The Nashville Predators finished the season strong and took the top wild card spot heading into the playoffs, which is the second year in a row they’ve made it. And, had it not been for the stellar play of the rest of their division, they might be sitting more comfortably atop the standings. Anaheim, on the other hand, have made the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season largely thanks to a stellar defense this season.
The season series, even though only three games in total, makes for good notes for the home teams in this series, as the home team won every game between the two this year. Nashville took two of three games, all which were decided in regulation, and outscored Anaheim 10-7 on the season.
Nashville vs Anaheim Ducks First Round Series Preview
The Impact of Defense
This series promises to be an exciting one for all who watch it, regardless if you are a fan of the teams involved or not, and one of the main points to keep an eye on are the men on the blue line. Anaheim finished the regular season with the best defense in the NHL, allowing a meager 188 goals for a 2.29 GA/GP, a statistic that will have the Predators’ forwards brainstorming for ways to break this brick wall. Along with allowing the least amount of goals in the league, the Ducks are also fourth in allowing the least amount of shots per game, allowing only 27.5 shots per game. These are only a few statistics, but they are just a taste of how strong the blueline is in Anaheim.
As for the Predators, they are lead by long-standing defenseman Shea Weber and relatively new man Roman Josi, who flies under the radar as one of the better blueliners in the league. And, despite them being top-level defenseman, they are also second and fourth respectively on the Predators in total points, with Josi getting 61 on the season and Weber bringing in 51. The other important statistic that weighs in the favor of Nashville is the fact that they allowed the least amount of shots in the league this season with their opponents only taking an average of 27.3 shots per game.
The major defensive difference between the two organizations, and one that may just end up being the difference in the series, is their ability to kill penalties. The Ducks were a force to be reckoned with in regards to special teams this season, killing a ridiculous 87.2% of penalties, which was 2% higher than the next closest team in this regard. Along with being the best team in killing penalties, they were also the most potent on the powerplay, with a PP% of 23.1%. This could prove for a worrisome statistic for Nashville with the Predators sitting 16th in PK% with a very average 81.2% and their PP% sitting 10th in the league at 19.7%. The question remains, what blue line will be the first to break in this series?
The second, and arguably most important, of the key points to this series is one that plays to both the strengths and the weaknesses of both organizations involved. Arguments can be made for both starting goalies that they are of top calibre, but which one will come out on top and help see their team make it into the second round?
Firstly, the goalie situation in Anaheim is a much less clear one than that in Nashville, with two goalies making their case to start Game 1 in Anaheim. You have Frederik Andersen, who played in 43 games this season and had very respectable numbers of 22-9-7, a .919 save percentage, and a 2.30 GAA. Then you have John Gibson, who might’ve started less games than Andersen, but puts up a solid argument of his own with a 21-13-4 record, .920 save percentage, and a 2.07 GAA. Regardless of who they end up going with, there are much worse problems to have in the sport of hockey than two goalies who can start, and win, a few games here and there.
The goaltending story in Nashville is a much different one with perennial starter, Pekka Rinne, who started 66 games this season for the Predators being the obvious choice to start the series. Despite Rinne being the easy choice to start for Nashville, this season has been one of his less memorable. The statistics don’t lie as he had a save percentage of .908, and a 2.48 GAA this season, both stats well under his career averages of .917 and 2.37 respectively. This season, in fact, was his second worst season in regards to save percentage, and his third worst in GAA since he became the full-time starter for the Predators in 2008-09, as well as being on the lower end for wins as well.
Despite the situation in Anaheim looking much more stable, and better in depth, in Anaheim, many will argue that Rinne is a goalie capable of great heights and won’t be sleeping on him in this series. Ultimately, the difference in the goaltending will come down to whether or not Rinne can improve on his less than average season, and if the boys in Anaheim can continue their solid play into the postseason.
The Impact of Ryan Johansen
One of the biggest factors that could play a part in Nashville possibly pulling off an upset and winning this series is the relatively new addition, Ryan Johansen. The Predators went out on a limb earlier in the season to part ways with promising young defenseman Seth Jones to bring in Johansen, but it has proven to be a very smart piece of business for all parties involved. Taking into consideration that Johansen was massively underperforming as the “star player” in Columbus, many people were questioning why they would give up Jones for him.
In the 40 games Nashville played before the Jones-Johansen trade Nashville was 19-14-7, hardly on pace to make any impact on the league or the division. Then, with the addition of Johansen, they added some much needed firepower at the center position and went 22-13-7 with him. When you take into account that Roman Josi and Shea Weber are both arguably top 10 defenseman in the league, parting ways with Seth Jones didn’t impact them as negatively as it would with most other teams in the league. If Johansen produces like he has been able to in the past, look for him to play a pivotal role in any challenge the Predators will put up.
Despite touching on the point that the home team has had success in this series in the regular season, look for Nashville to play with a chip on their shoulder and come out to prove a point. Ryan Johansen could be the difference maker in what looks to be a very defensive series, and if he shows up they’ll easily win a few in Anaheim.
Nashville in 6
Here are the predictions from the rest of the LWOS Hockey department:
Ken Hill: Anaheim in 5
Zachary DeVine: Anaheim in 6
Connor Ferguson: Anaheim in 5
Ben Kerr: Anaheim in 5
Mark Grainda: Nashville in 6
Cristiano Simonetta: Anaheim in 5
Markus Meyer: Anaheim in 6
Griffin Schroeder: Anaheim in 6
Nick Di Giovanni: Anaheim in 4
Catherine Dore: Anaheim in 6
Dave Gove: Anaheim in 6