The first round of the playoffs is magical. Teams are generally healthy, stars can play 25 minutes a match, and there are between three or four games per night. It’s a hockey fan’s dream and while the number of games decreases, the intensity increases exponentially. The first round has some incredible matchups but the Nashville Predators and Colorado Avalanche series might be a little dry. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth watching though. It all starts on Thursday night in Nashville and continues every other day.
Here’s a preview of how these teams match up. Before we get into who will be making an impact on the ice, let’s talk about who will be on the sidelines.
Injuries for Both Teams
The Avalanche will be missing two key members of their team during the first round, Erik Johnson and Semyon Varlamov. Johnson has grown into the workhorse defenseman that the St. Louis Blues saw in him when they drafted him in 2006. He had 25 points in 62 games this season and is great at shutting down top forwards.
His injury will keep Johnson out for another 2-4 weeks, which means he will miss at least five games. Varlamov is a worse loss though, as a knee injury will keep him out until the Western Conference Final should the Avs make it that far. He was sporting a .920 save percentage and bailed out the Avalanche in big moments. Losing a top goalie and defender is never a good sign for the playoffs, especially when there’s no depth behind it.
The Predators, on the other hand, are mostly healthy. They’re missing Calle Jarnkrok, who’s arguably the best defensive forward on the team. A combination of Jarnkrok, P.K. Subban, and Mattias Ekholm would cover Nathan MacKinnon all series, but without Jarnkrok, someone else will need to step up. Jarnkrok is expected to come back sometime during the series, but it is not known exactly when. Some speculation has him coming back for the first game but no official statement has been made.
An Offensive Avalanche
Let’s not beat around the bush, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen are the Avalanche offense. They finished with 97 and 84 points, respectively, but it drops off after that. Gabriel Landeskog has done well with 62 points in 78 games but he’s mostly played shotgun to MacKinnon. The trio’s speed and ability to cut inside is matched by few in the NHL. It will take a herculean effort to slow them down. While the Predators’ top four d-men could halt them, the bottom pairing will be ripe for the taking.
The second and third offensive lines don’t provide much secondary scoring, but Alex Kerfoot is having a fun breakout season. I’m not sure if he and Carl Soderberg will be able to stop the onslaught from the Predators’ middle six. Their lack of depth might be the story of the series, as few players look ready to step up. This weakness will be highlighted and exploited as the Predators’ bottom nine are relatively unmatched in the West. You might not see it the first game, you might not see it during the second game, but eventually the onslaught will wear down the Avalanche’s bottom six.
A Predatory Attack
The Predators have the deepest offense in the Western Conference and it will be the key to another Stanley Cup bid. The JoFA line remains the cream of the crop as Viktor Arvidsson and Filip Forsberg are red hot. Ryan Johansen centers the trio and is considered an overpaid underperformer by many in Nashville, but this isn’t true. Johansen has accepted a new role as a responsible two-way center and it shows. He takes tougher zone starts against top competition and keeps them off the board while setting up his linemates. With Jarnkrok out due to injury, shadowing MacKinnon will likely fall on Johansen.
The touted SMURF line will also be vital to the Predators’ success. For the uninitiated, the SMURF is Kevin Fiala, Kyle Turris, and Craig Smith, essentially another first line. Smith and Fiala are two dynamic wingers who generate possession and high danger chances with ease. Turris is a good complimentary player, but his role will most likely be set up his wingers and be responsible on defense.
The bottom-six is where the Predators will win this series and possibly the Cup. Ryan Hartman has invigorated the bottom six and done well at any position. His play has given the third and fourth lines a presence that was missing before he arrived. Nick Bonino will also be looking to continue his hot streak in the playoffs as he did with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Austin Watson will also be a key part of the series, as his defensive work and penalty killing make him an elite fourth-liner.
Certain players will have to sit and it’s likely that rookie sensation Eeli Tolvanen will ride the pine unless injuries rear their ugly head. Have no doubt, this is the right move as Tolvanen has already played over 70 games in various leagues and tournaments and is adjusting to NHL defensemen.
As I said earlier, the Avalanche have lost their best defenseman for most of, if not the entirety of, the series. The rest of the big name defensemen are Nikita Zadorov and Tyson Barrie. Zadorov is a big body who excels in the corner while making opposing forwards pay a price to enter the zone. His hits are well positioned but he can get beat to the outside.
Barrie is a great offensive defenseman and arguably the most important defender after Johnson. He ranks fourth on the team in points with 57 in 68 games. His offensive production from the backend will be necessary for the Avalanche to steal even one game. His defense is a bit suspect but head coach Jared Bednar can cover that up with some sheltered zone starts.
Another player to watch is rookie Samuel Girard. The ex-Predator, who was part of the trade that sent Turris to Nashville, has been silently good all season. He may only have 20 points in 68 games but his defense has improved significantly from earlier this year. He’s already a top-four defenseman but shows signs of being a first pairing guy. The playoffs are a whole other beast from the regular season, so he may not be mentally tough enough to go more than a few games against the best that the Predators have to throw at him.
The Most Talented Defense in the NHL
It’s no secret that the Predators have the best defense in the NHL. The Anaheim Ducks and Tampa Bay Lightning come close but no one else is in the same stratosphere. The top pairing is technically Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis, both of whom are elite offensive talents. It’s fair to say that they’re a bit weak in their own zone but their transition play is some of the best in the NHL. The pair will most likely receive some sheltered zone starts against some lesser competition to maximize offensive production.
The second pairing will feature Norris candidate P.K. Subban and Mattias Ekholm. This will be the shutdown pair, plain and simple. This duo shouldn’t be judged by the number of points they produce. Rather, their success should be measured in how many points they allow. Subban and Ekholm already have an impeccable résumé, as they shut down noted goal scorers like Patrick Kane, Vladamir Tarasenko, and Ryan Getzlaf in last year’s playoffs.
Ekholm goes unnoticed a lot of the time, but his physically dominating play can scare even the toughest power forwards out of the corners. He suppresses shots with ease and can suck the time and space out of buildings. Five on five play isn’t just where Ekholm shines, his shot on the power play and his penalty killing are top-tier. His and Subban’s transition play is top notch but they both excel in the corners and in front of the net.
The third pair is where things might go awry. It will likely be a combination of Alexei Emelin, Yannick Weber with Matt Irwin mixed in to provide relief. The Predators’ third pair is their biggest weakness and it’s a little scary that David Poile did nothing to fix it before the trade deadline.
A third round pick for Brandon Davidson would have been a great start or picking up Cody Franson off waivers would’ve been a decent band-aid. Alas, the Predators’ third pair is relatively immobile and poor on defense compared to the elite top four. If MacKinnon gets to feast on this line, this series could be tighter than expected.
Mile High Walls
Ex-Vezina winner Semyon Varlamov is out for the entire series leaving Jonathan Bernier and Andrew Hammond to pick up the slack. Bernier will likely get the start, as he’s posted respectable backup numbers this season. He had a .913 save percentage in 37 games while winning 19 of them. Most Predators’ fans will remember Bernier as the goalie that cost the Ducks Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals last year. His playoff numbers are less than ideal and starting him seems like a death sentence for the Avalanche.
Hammond, aka the Hamburgular, will be waiting in the wings in case Bernier slips up. He’s only played one game in the NHL for the Avalanche but posted a .939 save percentage. I’m not sure if he still has an ounce of the magic that lifted the Senators into the playoffs a few years ago but he could see some serious minutes after the first or second game.
All in all, goaltending is a major weakness for the Avalanche and great goaltending is a necessity to make it deep in the playoffs. I’m not sure even a beefed-up roster like the Predators or Lightning could win it all with these netminders. Unfortunately for Colorado, their opposition has no issue with goaltending.
The Cream of the Crop in the Crease
It’s safe to say that the Predators have the best goaltending duo in the NHL. Pekka Rinne is the Vezina favorite while young Juuse Saros is the heir apparent and one of the best up and comers in the league. I’ve talked about how bad the Predators would be if Rinne wasn’t as good as he’s been and to prove it, I’ll show the team’s high danger chance ratio to high danger goal ratio: 49.56% compared to 59.28%, that’s a 10% increase! That’s never been done to my knowledge yet the Predators made this style of play a habit and somehow have not paid the price.
More specifically, Rinne has started 59 games, winning 42 with a .927 save percentage. Long gone are his days of flopping around the crease like a dying fish. Instead, Rinne is much more calculated in his movements and is much better technically. He’s making tough and routine saves look the same which is easier on the body and psyche of a goalie. If Rinne keeps his composure, there’s no reason to expect a drop off in performance.
In case Rinne does fall off, Saros looks ready to step in. The young Finn’s responsibilities grew this year as he took on 26 games while starting in 23. His play has inspired enough confidence in the Predators’ organization to allow Rinne to sit out a few matches late in the season. Saros sported a .925 save percentage throughout the year, and he collected three shutouts. I’m not sure if he’s ready for playoff hockey but the Predators hope they won’t have to ask that question.
Who Has a Better Chance?
If the Avalanche win the series, even in Game 7, it will be one of the bigger upsets in recent memory. The consensus among respected members of the media is that the series belongs to the Predators. Dom Luszczyszyn’s model, which is one of the best in the league, gives the Predators a 77% chance of winning.
The Predators are better on offense, on defense, in goal, and are deeper in all three categories. I predict a five-game series, as MacKinnon will steal at least one game. Nevertheless, it will be fun.