NHL First Round Playoff Preview: Predators vs. Stars

After upending the Blackhawks juggernaut in a sweep two years ago, the Predators established themselves as one of the premier contenders in the West. They would go on to make the Stanley Cup Finals and give Pittsburgh all they could handle before bowing out in six. Last year they won the President’s Trophy and followed that up with another Central Division title this year. Now, this core looks to finally go all the way and bring the Stanley Cup to Tennessee.

Meanwhile, the Dallas Stars won the Central Division in 2016, but have failed to make the playoffs since then. However, this year the Stars finally put it all together and made a return to the postseason behind an improved defense and outstanding goaltending from starter Ben Bishop. They’re not just hoping to make it in, but to make some serious noise and win the Cup for the first time in twenty years.

Will the Predators win this first meeting of these Southern foes and maintain their status as Cup contenders? Or, can the Stars upend the Predators and make some noise of their own?

OFFENSE

For the talent of the group of forwards the Predators boast, they surprisingly struggle to score at times. They only ranked 19th in goals per game, scoring 236 goals throughout the course of the season. Looking at the scoring stats for the Preds reveals a similar trend: their leading scorer, Ryan Johansen, only had 14 goals and 50 assists for 64 points. Their second-leading scorer was a defenseman, captain Roman Josi. However, there is some balance throughout the lineup, so even if they don’t have elite scoring talent, they can still score by committee from their forwards to even their defense.

However, the Stars score even less than the Predators, ranking a whopping 29th in goals per game. Their offense pretty much operates the opposite of Nashville’s; instead of scoring by committee, a great majority of their production comes from their top line of Tyler Seguin-Jamie Benn-Alexander Radulov. If this top line gets shut down, the secondary scoring behind them is lacking, with no other forwards above 30 points on the season. They do finally get their deadline acquisition in Mats Zuccarello back from injury, which could help bolster some of their scoring. The defense can step up and produce some scoring, but if their secondary scoring doesn’t step up, this could spell trouble for Dallas.

Advantage: Predators

DEFENSE

The Predators have one of the most talented and complete blue lines in hockey, which perfectly suits their identity as a team that doesn’t score a lot but plays a shut-down, tight, very structured and defensively-disciplined game. The top 4 consists of Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis, and defenseman, PK Subban. They could probably all be number one guys on other teams. They can not only lock their opposition down defensively, but can also chip on on the offensive end, making them extremely dangerous.

Only three teams ranked better in goals against per game than the Predators. One of them, however, was Dallas, whose blue line is not too shabby themselves. Their top four of John Klingberg, Esa Lindell, Miro Heiskanen, and Roman Polak are more than capable of shutting opponents down and turning them over, as well as chipping in at the other end. With how the team struggles to score, it is incredibly important that the defense holds up and can chip in when necessary. With all that said, however, I think the more talented and experienced blue line of Nashville has the edge.

Advantage: Predators

GOALTENDING

The Predators boast one of the best tandems in the league in Pekka Rinne, the defending Vezina winner for best goalie, and Juuse Saros, a younger backup who has some playoff experience in relief. Rinne was not as impressive this year, but still put up a .918 save percentage and a 2.42 goals allowed average, while Saros put up only slightly lower tallies. Rinne should be ready to hold down the fort on his own end, but should he falter or get injured, Saros should be capable of picking up the slack.

Meanwhile, the Stars tandem has been pretty much lights out this year. When healthy, Ben Bishop was stellar, putting up a league-leading 1.98 goals against average and also league-leading .934 save percentage. Meanwhile, backup Anton Khudobin proved to be a capable backup in Bishop’s absence, posting a 2.57 GAA and a .923 save percentage of his own. If Bishop stays healthy and can play as lights-out as he did during the season, he is more than capable of stealing some games or even a series.

Advantage: Stars

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Predators offensive woes most expose themselves when looking at the power play, which ranks dead last in the league at 12.9%. Again, this might come back to the lack of having a real game-breaker on the ice that can consistently score on the man advantage. The penalty kill, meanwhile, ranks sixth at 82.1%, bringing their combined PP and PK to 95%, a troubling number for a contending team (generally, 100% is considered average).

Meanwhile, the Stars boast a surprisingly good power play at 21%, good for 11th in the league. Having guys like Seguin, Benn, Radulov, and Klingberg on that first unit certainly help bolster this power play. Meanwhile, the PK ranks fifth in the league at 82.8%, good for 5th in the league. Their combined special teams, then, comes out to a more impressive 103.8%, giving the Stars the edge on special teams.

Advantage: Stars

COACHING

Nashville is headed by Peter Laviolette, one of the most successful American-born coaches of all time. He has coached three different teams to the Cup Finals and won a Stanley Cup with Carolina back in 2006. He has made the playoffs in all five seasons with the Preds, winning five series and taking them to their first Cup Final in franchise history. He has a 73-64 all-time playoff record in 10 appearances.

Meanwhile, Dallas is coached by first-year head coach Jim Montgomery. He won a national championship and made another Frozen Four at the University of Denver, but has no NHL playoff experience coaching. Thus, the coaching edge seems very decisive.

Advantage: Predators

SEASON SERIES

Nov 10-Predators 5, Stars 4 (OT) in Dallas

Dec 27-Stars 2, Predators 0 in Nashville

Feb 2-Stars 3, Predators 1 in Nashville

Feb 7-Predators 3, Stars 2 (OT) in Nashville

Feb 19-Predators 5, Stars 3 in Dallas

Predators: 3-2 in season series, 1-2 at home, 2-0 at Dallas

Stars: 2-1-2 in season series, 0-1-1 at home, 2-0-1 at Nashville

Advantage: Predators

COMING INTO THE PLAYOFFS…

The Predators finished the year winning 8 of their last 11 and got points in 9 of 11. They won their last 3.

The Stars finished 6-3-1 in their last 10 and won their last game.

Advantage: Predators

OTHER FACTORS

The Predators have won at least one series in each of their last three trips to the postseason. Meanwhile, the Stars haven’t made the postseason since 2016, but they won a series in their last trip in 2016. These two teams have never met in the playoffs but will square off with one another in next year’s Winter Classic at the Cotton Bowl.

PREDICTION

This series will likely be low-scoring and tight. Not a lot of offense, but some great defense and goaltending, which will make for more of an intense, hard-nosed series compared to a wide-open, high-scoring series. I think Ben Bishop will bail the Stars out and steal them a couple of games, but in the end, the Predators have too good a blue line and enough up front to take the series.

Prediction: Predators in 6

GAME 1: Wed, 9:30, USA (nat’l)/FS TN (Preds)/FS SW (Stars)

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