We’ve made it! The Nashville Predators’ 2016 postseason begins this Friday night in Anaheim, with game one face-off coming shortly after 9:30PM central time.
If you’ve followed this blog, and follow various hockey blogs, you’ve read about how the Ducks will exert their will all over Nashville, and come out the victors in a hard fought seven game series. In fact, recent polls of ESPN “experts” unanimously chose the Ducks to dispose of the Predators in round one.
What I will do is give you a look at the matchup and refrain from a final decision on the victors, because the games need to be played and there would be no reason for me to be certain either way, as both teams have run cold in the regular season, and both teams have run hot in the regular season.
The teams met three times in the regular season, but you can throw all of those games out the window. In Game One, the Preds stoned Duck goaltender Anton Khudobin, who was soon banished to their AHL team in San Diego. We don’t expect him to see any NHL postseason activity.
In Game Two, the Preds started backup netminder Carter Hutton, as the Ducks had lost nine of their first ten games to start the season. Make that nine of eleven as the Ducks won that one. Barring injury, don’t expect any less than Pekka Rinne in goal for Nashville.
In Game Three, the Preds won, and Rinne was number one star, but again, you can throw it out as this was also in mid-November. Ryan Johansen was still playing in Columbus, while Seth Jones patrolled the blue line for Nashville.
Let’s look at how these rosters shape up in April:
Both teams have goaltenders that participated in the NHL All Star Game in January. Nashville’s Rinne may have been more a sentimental selection given his statistics this year, but Pekka has been world-class over his body of work in the NHL, and in international competition, so it was hardly a stretch to allow him entrance into the talent showcase on display within the All Star structure.
On the Ducks side of the ice, it’s been John Gibson who has electrified the crowds with his superlative play this season. Additionally, the Ducks boast a “1B” goaltender in Frederik Andersen. Both Gibson and Andersen won over 20 games this season and as a tandem were winners of the Jennings Trophy for least goals given up in the NHL this season. Expect Gibson to get the starting nod in Game One, but if coach Bruce Boudreau has to make a switch, he does it with the utmost confidence in Andersen.
On defense, we certainly know of the skill set of the Preds blueliners. Captain Shea Weber and his partner Roman Josi have combined for 34 goals and 78 assists this season, providing the unquestionably best offense a defensive pairing can provide in the National Hockey League. Twenty of those goals came on the power play, and it will be of paramount importance for the Ducks to key in on those players to thwart the attack with the man advantage.
Second pairing, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm really came into their own this season, and would be a top pairing on a majority of other NHL clubs. The tandem were both solid “plus” players for the Preds this season, and combined for 18 goals as well.
Third pairing should include the veteran Barret Jackman and rookie Tony Bitetto, who saw frequent action after the trade of Seth Jones. Swedish rearguard Petter Granberg appears to be the odd man out of the rotation to start the series, but if either Jackman or Bitetto were to falter, or in case of injury, appears to be a more than capable fill in for coach Peter Laviolette.
As for the Ducks, again we point to the stingiest defense in the league, and as if that wasn’t enough, the top penalty kill and power play in the league! Crazy! Cam Fowler led the Duck defense in ice time, averaging almost 23 minutes per game (compared to Weber and Josi, who average well over 25 minutes) and is generally paired with veteran Kevin Bieksa, who came over after a long career with Vancouver. Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen are both mobile, offensive defensemen who helped quarterback that number one power play unit.
Tough guy Josh Manson and one of Simon Despres, Shea Theodore or Clayton Stoner will make up the final defensive pairing for Anaheim. These guys hit and hit hard, so Preds forwards will need to be fast in their decision making with and without the puck.
Up front, both teams have a variety of offensive weapons to choose from. For just the second time in franchise history, the Preds offer two scorers who tallied over thirty goals in the same season. Filip Forsberg (33 goals) avoided any sophomore jinx talk with a sensational second half of the season, and James Neal (31 goals) had a tremendous second campaign with the Preds. 26 year old US born forward Craig Smith notched his third consecutive 20-goal season, and can be counted on as a very skilled, yet streaky offensive talent. Smith’s numbers have dipped in consecutive seasons (52 points to 44 to 37 this year) but his goals can be highlight-reel quality and will be looked to this series to provide strong offense with the puck.
Ryan Johansen, the center the Preds acquired from Columbus for Jones, has become a solid top-line player for Nashville, with 34 points in 42 games on a line with Neal and Calle Jarnkrok. Jarnkrok had breakthrough campaign in his second full season with the Preds. Jarnkrok upped his goal total from 7 in 2014-15 to 16 this season, and has proved to be an excellent penalty killer as well. Mike Ribeiro centers Forsberg and Smith, and has proven to be a first-rate pivot over his lengthy NHL career. Mike Fisher will center the third line with Viktor Arvidsson and Colin Wilson on his wings. The fourth line should involve Paul Gaustad, Colton Sissons and Miikka Salomaki, with veterans Eric Nystrom, Cody Bass and young Austin Watson waiting their turn in case a change needs to be made.
As for Anaheim, you’ve all heard the names Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, who have stewarded the Duck offense for the better part of the last eleven NHL seasons. Getzlaf had an off year on the goal scoring side of things (13) but added 50 assists, and helped Perry to yet another solid season, with 34 goals and 62 points. Centers Ryan Kesler and Rickard Rakell along with winger Jakob Silfverberg all hit the 20-goal mark. Rakell has been sidelined with an appendectomy and may miss the start of this series. Trade deadline acquisition Jamie McGinn added 8 goals in 21 games for Anaheim, and had 22 overall between Anaheim and Buffalo.
Another key acquisition for Anaheim was 27-year old winger David Perron, who came over from Pittsburgh. Perron had 20 points in 28 games for Anaheim but missed the final games of the season with a shoulder injury. He is considered “probable” for Game One, and will certainly be a factor at some point in the series. Nashville is very familiar with Perron, having been a Central Division rival St. Louis Blues player for a half dozen season before being dealt to Edmonton and then Pittsburgh.
The Ducks have many other interchangeable parts up front comprising their bottom two lines, but you will frequently hear names like Andrew Cogliano, Shawn Horcoff, Nate Thompson, Brandon Pirri, Chris Stewart and former Predator Mike Santorelli in the mix, along with youngsters Nick Ritchie and Chris Wagner.
The first four games of Round One have the Preds in Anaheim Friday and Sunday, while returning to Bridgestone Arena for Games Three and Four on Tuesday and Thursday.
Check the times for all games, as the NHL and NBC try their best to accommodate both time zones. Preds home game on Tuesday will start at 8:30pm, while the Thursday game will begin at 7pm.