Up until the final night of the regular season, the Nashville Predators were gearing towards a first-round series against the Calgary Flames. Despite a late-season defeat against them, the two teams were going to put on a full display of physical hockey suited best for the postseason. It was going to be a worthy matchup until it wasn’t. The Predators couldn’t hold on to a 4-0 lead over the Arizona Coyotes and slipped down into the second wild-card spot, allowing the Dallas Stars to sneak past them.
The table is now set for the Predators to face the Colorado Avalanche, the best team in the Western Conference. In a way, it’s almost poetic that the Avalanche closely resembles their style; top-six scoring, depth in the top nine, a Norris-worthy defenseman that can steal the show, and goaltending suitable enough to keep their team in each game. For Nashville, it will be the ultimate measuring stick to determine how legitimate a contender they are. They will take on the team with the second-best odds of winning the Stanley Cup, behind only the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Florida Panthers.
While nobody expected the Predators to be as involved in the playoff race, let alone make it, the team has a lot going for them, and it goes beyond Roman Josi‘s monster season. The Predators and Avalanche are matched quite well against one another, and the series may be closer than everyone expects it to be.
Predators’ Herd Line Will Be An X-Factor
When it comes to the postseason, in most cases, it becomes a game of matching lines and making sure everyone knows their assignment. In Nashville, the biggest benefit head coach John Hynes has to work with is a reliable, consistent third line that gives the team energy and, more importantly, secondary scoring. Known as “The Herd Line”, Colton Sissons, Yakov Trenin, and rookie Tanner Jeannot took the Western Conference by storm with their stellar play this season.
While Trenin set career-high numbers in his short NHL career, Sissons looked revitalized on a new-looking third line, recording his highest numbers in three seasons and coming close to his personal best in the process. Playing on their left side all season was 24-year-old Jeannot, a different breed of hockey player and one the Predators desperately need in this series. Mixing size, a tenacious attitude, and the ability to score goals, Jeannot led all rookies in goals with 24 and also led the NHL in fighting majors. He was a man on a mission, and, together with Sissons and Trenin, gave Nashville the depth required to push through a difficult season.
If the Predators want to make noise this season, they’ll need these three players to continue playing the way they did during the regular season. Playoff hockey tightens up, and the space down the middle disappears. Players who scored at will during the season tend to find themselves in situations where they can’t register a goal for multiple games, and in a seven-game series, it could spell disaster. With three lines rolling, Nashville can continue cycling and throw everything at Colorado without them having an answer for this style of a third line.
Duchene, Johansen & Granlund Need to Continue Their Resurgence
When Matt Duchene and Ryan Johansen were left exposed during the Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft, the feeling in the air was that these two players let down the organization that entrusted them with hefty contracts. Both players were trending downwards in the previous two seasons, as was Mikael Granlund, who Nashville acquired for fan-favorite Kevin Fiala. Their inability to be difference makers translated into the postseason, leading to the Predators’ first-round exit in the past two seasons.
Then, just like that, the tables turned in a positive direction for all three players. Duchene became the first player in Predators history to record 40 goals, setting career highs in the process. Johansen returned to form by hitting the 60-point plateau for just the second time in five seasons. Granlund recorded a personal best in assists with 53 and helped solidify the Predators’ powerplay and top-six. With all three firing on all cylinders and Filip Forsberg hitting the 40-goal plateau, Nashville became an offensive dynamo and often found themselves scoring their way out of problems.
The Avalanche had the league’s best powerplay in 2021-22, while the Predators were the most penalized team. It doesn’t take much time to put two and two together to realize this is a deadly combination for Nashville. If they want to continue to play a rough brand of hockey, and they’ll need to in the playoffs, they’ll also need their top-six players to continue their scoring pace. Duchene needs to be better than two goals in his last 10 playoff games, and the combination of Johansen and Granlund as the team’s one-two punch down the middle needs to rival the pace and intensity of Colorado’s top two.
Predators Need Rittich To Outduel Kuemper
While the Predators’ camp is remaining tight-lipped about the seriousness of Juuse Saros’ injury, he’ll miss the first two games of the series. Now David Rittich will be counted on to start the opening round against the Avalanche, which puts a big question mark over the team’s chances. With Saros in goal, the Predators were already heavy underdogs, but they’ll have to overcome the near-impossibility of taking down Colorado without him.
Rittich has appeared in two games against Colorado, winning one of the two games. He started the first matchup between the two during the regular season, surrendering six goals on 35 shots, but managed to squeak out a win in their final game of the season series. In 17 starts this season, Rittich registered a 3.57 goals-against average and a .886 save percentage. Those are numbers that will make the hair stand on the backs of necks, and they don’t instill confidence by any stretch. Connor Ingram will back him up and could be the Predators’ wild card, but given his inexperience, the team is likely to lean on Rittich in hopes of him returning to the form he showed when he was with the Calgary Flames.
Staring him down at the other end of the ice will be Darcy Kuemper, the Avalanche’s go-to starter for the series. The good news is that he struggled in both starts against the Predators this season, posting two losses and a sub-900 SV% in each outing. He surrendered five goals in both games, and his last seven starts of the season weren’t what Avalanche fans expected of him. His play against Nashville alone should inspire some form of confidence, as their high-octane offense meshes well against Colorado’s scoring, and they could take advantage of some shaky goaltending in an extended series. Adding Gabriel Landeskog potentially not being 100 percent to start, and this series may be much closer than fans of both sides realize.
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Covering the Nashville Predators. I work for a company called SPORTLOGiQ and have loved the game of Hockey for over three decades. I’m obsessed with advanced analytics and pair that with my love for the eye test – i.e. watching the games (I DO that too!)