Tonight marks the beginning of the third round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, with the Nashville Predators visiting the Anaheim Ducks in Game 1 of the Western Conference Final.
The Predators went all World War Z on their opponents, giving the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues relentless doses of speed and skill, ultimately overwhelming their defenses. This marks Nashville’s first-ever trip to the third round, and television ratings are showing that the team has never been more popular.
For their part, the Ducks rolled over the hapless Calgary Flames, but were then pushed to seven games by the Edmonton Oilers. And it was in Game 7 that the Ducks flipped the script on their past four (!!!) playoff runs. In those postseasons, the Ducks were eliminated in seven games after leading said series 3-2. This time, they entered Game 6 in Edmonton leading 3-2 and, despite losing 7-1, finally, FINALLY won a seventh and deciding game on home ice.
And here we are, a rematch of last year’s excruciatingly tight first-round series, but this time for a chance to play for the Stanley Cup.
Head to Head
Despite the Ducks finishing 11 points clear of the Predators in the standings, there wasn’t much between these teams when they met during the regular season. Each team had a blowout win (6-1 for the Ducks and 5-0 for the Preds), and Anaheim won the third game in a shootout.
Much the same story the past few years, with the last three seasons yielding three wins for the Predators and four for the Ducks, with Anaheim prevailing in the shootout in two other games.
For what it’s worth, Nashville has won both playoff series the teams have played, 4-2 in 2010-11 and 4-3 in 2015-16.
By the Numbers
Nashville scored 17 more goals than the Ducks during the regular season, but also allowed 24 more. Though Anaheim has scored slightly more often thus far in the playoffs (3.18 goals per game versus 2.80), there is quite a wide gulf in goals against, with the Predators allowing a paltry 1.40 goals per game, in comparison to Anaheim’s 3.00.
The Predators’ stinginess is due to their potent combination of an elite defense corps and an enigmatic goaltender in Pekka Rinne who, though sheltered, is absolutely en fuego. A .951 save percentage through ten games?? Somebody put him out!
John Gibson, his counterpart in the Anaheim net, has been merely adequate, entering the series with a .908 over eleven starts. If you exclude Gibson’s nightmarish Game 5 against the Oilers, in which he allowed three goals on six shots, he improves to .916. Still nothing spectacular, but hey, the Ducks are here now and that’s all that matters.
By the More Better Numbers
Anaheim has been a very good possession team thus far this postseason, and are tops amongst the four remaining squads. This is a marked improvement over their middle-of-the-pack finish to the regular season. Nashville has gone the opposite way, with middling numbers in the playoffs after a regular season comfortably within the NHL’s top ten.
The Preds are also riding very high shooting and save percentages, meaning that their level of play is likely not sustainable. But it also doesn’t have to be. This is the playoffs. Every team left is now only eight wins away from the Cup. If you eat two chicken parms and win, you can afford to eat two chicken parms before every damn game, calories be damned. Don’t mess with a good thing.
The Ducks unquestionably have the better top-end talent. As much as I can appreciate the skill of the Preds’ JOFA Line, there isn’t really much to write home about in terms of legitimate offensive talent once you get past that first trio. For reference, three of their top five scorers in the playoffs are defensemen, with Ryan Ellis leading the team with nine points.
Meanwhile, alongside Ryan Getzlaf, who has been devouring worlds this spring, the Ducks boast Corey Perry up front. And Jakob Silfverberg. And Rickard Rakell. And Ryan Kesler. You get the point.
That said, the Ducks seem scattered at times, with no real substance or consistency to their style of play. The Predators, on the other hand, roll four lines fast and hard. All. The. Time.
Colin Wilson, currently a third or fourth-liner depending on the night, has a 20-goal season on his resume. Craig Smith, another depth forward, has three. Deadline acquisition and proven secondary scorer P.A. Parenteau has been a healthy scratch most of the time. Point being? The Preds have options offensively.
And therein lies my reasoning for contending the Predators will win this series. They play a quick, efficient game as a unified bunch; you always know what you’re going to get. Meanwhile, the Ducks go as their stars do. And that’s fine, too. But in a short, seven-game (or less) series, Anaheim will always be a cold streak, injury or inexplicable drop pass away from disaster.
Laying It on the Line
So let’s recap:
The Predators are better in goal. Even if Rinne falters, they can still rely on their elite defense corps to keep the puck out. And if their top line falters, they can rely on their depth scoring to win.
Though Anaheim, on paper, might be the only team that can match the Predators in terms of defensive prowess, both the Ducks’ goaltending and blue line have looked porous at times this postseason. And their offense is just far too top-heavy for my liking.
Preds in six. You heard it here first.
(All advanced stats are thanks to Corsica. All metrics are at five-on-five unless otherwise specified.)
Peter Ferrell covers the Florida Panthers and Toronto Maple Leafs, with a side of jersey and logo (over)analysis, for The Hockey Writers.