A 3-1 Nashville Predators victory over the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday, May 8, sealed the deal. The two southern teams with passionate fanbases will square off in the first round of the playoffs. On the ice, however, they couldn’t be more different. One team is emerging from a rebuild, while the other is on the decline. The Hurricanes topped the Central Division standings, while the Predators needed a miracle to make the playoffs.
It’s going to be a battle of opposites, but the following players will be the most instrumental in a possible Nashville upset.
The Predators’ savior this season, Juuse Saros, has been magnificent since he returned from injury – incidentally off an elbow to the head from the Hurricanes’ Nino Niederreiter – with a .941 save percentage (SV%) and 16-6-1 record, which is the best in the league over that time by a wide margin. Outside of his start to the season, Saros has been spectacular in 2020-21 with strong lateral movement, and his ability to read plays is now sharper. He’s the backbone of the Predators’ resurgence. The team had below a 10% chance of making the playoffs by every model available when he went down with an injury, and within the turmoil was talks of a rebuild. However, his bounce-back helped the team turn the corner.
My colleagues and I voted Saros the unanimous season team MVP. His career splits against Carolina are fairly solid with a .918 SV% and 2.65 goals-against average. Sadly, a .918 SV% won’t be able to do it against the Canes in this series. Some have mentioned that Saros should be in on Hart conversations (from “Juuse Saros, Hart Trophy candidate? Why the Predators goalie deserves consideration”, The Athletic, 05/03/2021), seeing as he resurrected the Predators season from the dead. Whether or not the Predators win this series hinges on Saros’ performance. It needs to be Hart Trophy caliber.
The Herd Line
I don’t need to expand on the importance of these players, other than that Mathieu Olivier returned from injury on Monday to play the final regular-season game. I wrote all about why the line made up of Tanner Jeannot, Colton Sissons, Yakov Trenin, and possibly Mathieu Olivier will be vitally important to the Predators’ playoff success here. This line is extremely physical and willing to grind in the dirty areas with the strong Carolina defense. They set the tone and help the Predators play at the pace that suits them best. They are the epitome of an identity line. If the team is going to come out on top in this series, it’s going to be by dictating play, which starts with The Herd Line.
Filip Forsberg started off the season red hot. He was easily the Predators’ best forward, however, an injury derailed his season, and he was out for over a month. In 39 games, Forsberg 12 goals and 20 assists, which are par for his career. Since returning on May 1st, he has progressively looked better.
The Swedish power forward’s performance is going to be all-important to the Predators’ playoff success. His lack of scoring in the playoff series against the Dallas Stars two seasons ago proved to be a significant handicap for the team and the goaltending. With absolutely no support upfront, goaltender Pekka Rinne was forced to carry the team on his back. Career splits show that Forsberg has historically struggled against the Hurricanes, as he’s only put up nine points–four goals, five assists–in 17 games. It’s not encouraging by any means, but now would be the perfect time to see an explosion.
The Two $8 Million Centers
Matt Duchene and Ryan Johansen being overpaid is something that many have driven into the ground over their time in the Music City. The two are being paid like elite number one centers, but their point totals are at the level of mediocre second-liners at best. Duchene has the raw skill and analytics in his favor; Johansen does not. They play different styles, and while both of them have had their good moments, the majority have been bad. In a series with the second-best team in the NHL, everyone needs to contribute, especially the players you’re paying almost 20 percent of the salary cap.
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Both players looked excellent on the same line, with Forsberg as the third member in the game on Monday, but they need to prove that it’s sustainable. In Duchene’s case, his linemates have been lacking for the majority of the season. No disrespect to Erik Haula or Nick Cousins, who are good in their checking roles, but a point-producing, offense-oriented forward like Duchene should be elevated in the lineup to play with the same caliber players who emphasize offense.
As for Johansen, his production, or lack thereof, is less forgivable. He is continuously put on the first line with Forsberg, Tolvanen, and Arvidsson but struggles to make anything of it. Of course, it’s not all his fault. His play looks considerably better than the past couple of seasons with Tolvanen and Forsberg on his wings, but he still has a lot to prove moving forward. If Johansen can even begin to prove he’s worth the contract in this series, the flack he gets from fans should start to wane.
The series will need to be a team effort, just as the incredible second-half run has been for the Predators. Contributions up and down the lineup are necessary to beat an uber-talented team like the Hurricanes. When the Predators played the Colorado Avalanche in the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs, there was an apparent lack of scoring from the defense. Against the Stars, there was minimal forward scoring, and against the Arizona Coyotes, there was no defensive presence with, again, a lack of forward scoring. It’s an arduous task to win against arguably the best team in hockey, but they have proven that they can win, provided bounces go their way, and execute the system properly.