In case you missed them, the other 7 first round series are covered here and here. Today I’m previewing the last series to start. Admittedly, this isn’t the best way to do this, as I’m probably biased by what I’ve seen over the first 2 days of the playoffs. Lesson learned for next year: plan ahead.
Anaheim Ducks (P1) vs Nashville Predators (P4)
The Predators and Ducks last played on November 17th, with Nashville winning that game 3-2. Since then, both teams have made significant changes. Anaheim was struggling at that time, thanks in large part to a season-opening 10 game stretch where the Ducks scored just 10 goals. Bruce Boudreau’s job was rumored to be on the line, as the Ducks were shaping up to be a massive disappointment just one season after reaching the conference final. Around that time, the Ducks implemented a stylistic shift to a tighter-checking, defensively-minded system. It paid off; since November 23, Anaheim has collected more points than any team save for Washington, and they’ve been a top-3 possession team during that stretch.
Nashville, on the other hand, opted for a change in personnel, pulling the trigger on a swap of former 4th overall picks. The Predators sent defenseman Seth Jones to Columbus in exchange for center Ryan Johansen, a 2015 All-Star who had apparently fallen out of favor. Johansen may be 2 years older than Jones, but he potentially gives the Predators the #1 center they have coveted for nearly the entire lifespan of the franchise. It’s hard to say the trade improved the team’s fortunes much; Nashville collected 45 points in the 1st half of the season, and 51 points in the 2nd half, a negligible improvement.
The numbers paint this as an evenly matched series. The teams posted nearly identical score-adjusted Corsis over their last 20 games. Goal differential favors Anaheim slightly, but a lot of that comes from special teams, where the Ducks had the league’s best power play and penalty killing percentages. Neither team got particularly great goaltending. And that’s where things get interesting, because Nashville’s Pekka Rinne is a few years removed from being one of the NHL’s elite goalies, while Anaheim’s duo of Frederik Andersen and John Gibson are too young to have any kind of track record. That said, this was Rinne’s worst year as a pro. He’s 33 and not necessarily due for a bounceback.
I liked Anaheim as a Cup contender before the season started, and nothing Nashville has shown this year has convinced me to reconsider that. Ducks in 7.
Now that that’s out of the way, allow me to throw out some additional predictions:
Eastern Conference Final: Lightning over Penguins
Western Conference Final: Blues over Sharks
Stanley Cup: Lightning over Blues
Most Points: Sidney Crosby, PIT
Best Save %: Brian Elliott, STL