The Nashville Predators completed the first playoff series sweep in franchise history on Thursday. They knocked off the heavily favored Chicago Blackhawks in front of their hometown fans. This feat opened the eyes of many. Among most expert polls, almost no one had the Predators defeating the Blackhawks. It would be unfair to say that the Blackhawks played their best. Credit for much of that, though, is due to the Predators. The neutral-zone trap the Predators deployed caused Chicago problems. Marian Hossa of the Blackhawks said, ‘‘We couldn’t play the way we used to play… All of a sudden, we started playing a different game, and you could tell they were quicker, faster, more on the same page. And we were almost disoriented.’’
At the end of the day, the Predators won the series, and won it handily. They embarrassed a team that has three Cups in seven years. Now they move on to face the St. Louis Blues. The Blues took care of the Minnesota Wild in five games after edging the Predators out of the final divisional spot in the regular season. The Predators will need to be fantastic again if they hope to defeat the Blues and move on to the franchise’s first Conference Final. They will do it with strong team play carried over from round one.
How the Nashville Predators Will Defeat the St. Louis Blues in Round Two
In the regular season, the Predators met the Blues five times. The Predators won three of these contests. Both teams generate a lot of offense from their blue line and play a structured game in which they want to slow down the opposition’s attack and generate offense with a heavy forecheck. Both teams had similar seasons that saw ups and downs. They competed for a playoff spot until the very end. On the surface, this is a tight matchup that should lend itself to some amazing hockey. When digging a bit deeper though, the Predators have an edge on the Blues that starts from the net out.
When looking at the Predators vs. Blackhawks, it was impossible to ignore the amazing play of goaltender Pekka Rinne. Through four starts against the Blackhawks, Rinne allowed only three goals. He earned back-to-back shutouts in game one and two in Chicago. Nashville’s structure and defense certainly went a long way to help the goaltender, but he was still called upon to make key saves. Throughout the season, some were questioning how much longer Rinne would be the number one in Nashville. The strong play of Juuse Saros and decline of Rinne’s numbers had some thinking Saros would own the net sooner than later. Rinne has stepped up in a big way so far in the playoffs. If the Predators win, Rinne will need to be a huge factor.
One of the best storylines in this series is likely to be the two goaltenders. Nashville’s save percentage through round one in the playoffs is first in the league at an astounding .976. One spot behind, the St. Louis Blues. Jake Allen was fantastic in the first round as well, posting a .956 save percentage. If these two goaltenders can continue to play at this elevated level, fans should be in for a treat.
Defense Stays Solid
Both teams also boast similar strength at defense. Both blue lines contribute significantly on offense. During the regular season, Roman Josi, P.K. Subban and Ryan Ellis led the way for the Predators with 49, 40 and 38 points respectively. Alex Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko pitched in 48 and 35 points for the Blues. Through the playoffs, Josi has three points, Ellis has four, and Subban has two. For the Blues, Pietrangelo has one point and Parayko has two. Joel Edmundson has stepped up for the Blues, scoring two goals.
Losing Kevin Shattenkirk in a trade to the Washington Capitals does not seem to be hurting the Blues too much at this point. Young players like Parayko and Edmundson have stepped up to fill the hole Shattenkirk left.
Still, the edge goes to the Predators based on experience. Ellis has looked like the Predators best defenseman this series, playing equally well in both ends. Subban has been relatively quiet, but still has game-changing ability if he decides his team needs a boost. Last round, the Predators held Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Artemi Panarin to five points and two goals among them. Now they need to do the same against Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz, and Alex Steen.
Solving Jake Allen
So knowing that they are facing a white hot goalie, how do the Predators generate enough offense to win four games? Keep doing what they did against the Blackhawks. Against the top team in the West, the Predators dominated the possession game. The team’s score and venue adjusted 5-on-5 Corsi-for percentage was third highest in the league at 52.56%. The Blues, by contrast, was last in the league: 41.02%. That’s quite a wide disparity that will start to show up in the scoreboard if Allen can not maintain his level of play. The Predators generate shots and chances with speed and hard forechecking. It wore down the Blackhawks; it will wear down the Blues.
The Predators top forward line has established itself as one of the most dangerous in the league. If the so-called “Jofa” line of Viktor Arvidsson, Ryan Johansen, and Filip Forsberg can dictate the game, it will not matter who is in net for the Blues. Against Corey Crawford, the trio combined for 15 points, each member producing at a point-per-game or better. Only one of those points, an assist by Johansen, came on the man advantage. Those are big numbers at even strength, where most of the playoffs are played.
Bruce Boudreau, head coach of the Minnesota Wild, said of the Blues, “They weren’t the better team… but they won four games.” The Blues were out-shot in the series 182 to 134. Devan Dubnyk of the Minnesota Wild posted respectable numbers, but allowed 10 goals in the series. This was enough for Jake Allen to steal the show. The Blues may have snuck through one series, but with a hot goalie of their own and a faster, more opportunistic offense, the Predators gain the upper hand in round two.
Main Photo: ST. LOUIS, MO – APRIL 02: St. Louis Blues Center Alexander Steen (20) moves in for a shot and a goal during the second period of an NHL hockey game between the Nashville Predators and the St. Louis Blues. The Blues defeated the Predators 4-1 on April 2, 2017, at Scottrade Center in St. Louis, MO. (Photo by Tim Spyers/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)