The Nashville Predators and the Anaheim Ducks are set to square off in the Western Conference Finals. The Predators advance to the Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history after sweeping Chicago in Round 1 and defeating St. Louis 4-2 in Round 2. Similarly, the Ducks swept the Calgary Flames in Round 1, moving on to face Edmonton. Last night, the Ducks closed out the Round 2 series in dramatic fashion, winning Game 7 2-1. The Ducks are in familiar territory, earning a spot in the Conference Final for the second time in three years. They will look to avoid a similar fate as 2015, when they lost to Chicago in seven games. The Predators seek to push the franchise further into new territory and advance to the Stanley Cup Finals. Start time for Game 1 is tomorrow at 9 EST.
Nashville Predators vs. Anaheim Ducks Western Conference Final Preview
Regular Season Match-up
During the regular season, these teams met three times. Anaheim won two games, but the results show a seesaw pattern of performance. Anaheim won the first meeting of the season 6-1. Nashville took the second game 5-0. The last regular season meeting, on March 7, was decided in a shootout where Anaheim won 4-3. Worth noting: each team won their games on home ice. Anaheim technically has home-ice advantage in this series, but the true advantage may belong to the Predators. They are a perfect 5-0 at Bridgestone Arena in this postseason.
Success in the NHL playoffs often starts from the net out. A hot goalie can steal games for a team, especially in the opposition’s arena. A goalie gone cold can cripple a team no matter their offensive efforts.
In these playoffs, John Gibson of the Anaheim Ducks has started each of the team’s eleven playoff games. He has been inconsistent to say the least. The team gave Gibson the starting job last summer after moving Frederik Andersen to the Maple Leafs. Throughout the regular season, Gibson was solid, posting a .924 save percentage and a 2.22 goals-allowed average. The playoffs have been less kind to him, where his numbers fall to a .908 save percentage and a 2.80 goals allowed average. Twice the Ducks backup goaltender Jonathan Bernier has replaced Gibson. Yes these numbers may be skewed slightly by the Ducks 7-1 loss to the Oilers on May 7th, but Gibson will need to find more consistency to give his team a fighting chance.
Pekka Rinne of the Nashville Predators has seen almost the exact inverse of Gibson. After an up-and-down regular season, Rinne finished with a .918 save percentage and a 2.42 goals-allowed average. That was good for 16th in the league. During the playoffs, Rinne has been the best of all goaltenders, posting a .951 save percentage and a minuscule 1.37 goals-against average. Rinne will need to continue this performance to fend off the Ducks big scorers. Nothing about his game the past two series has shown that he cannot continue playing at such a high level. Whereas Gibson has at times looked lost, Rinne has looked dialed in.
These two teams are strikingly similar when it comes to depth at defense. Both teams possess world-class talent in their top-four, and reliable bottom-two pairings. Not only are these players effective in their own end, but they are relied on to contribute offensively. Much of the Predators offense came from their blue-line in the series against the St. Louis Blues. Predators d-men amassed 17 points, including six goals, throughout the series. Likewise, Ducks defenesmen tallied 15 points in their series with the Oilers, but only one of these was a goal.
The Predators top-four are playing their best hockey of the season at exactly the right time. Ryan Ellis has been arguably the best among them at both ends of the ice. P.K. Subban was a force in game one against the Blues. Roman Josi came alive later in the series, and Mattias Ekholm has been solid. These four have all 17 of the defense’s points among them. The bottom pairing of Matt Irwin and Yannick Weber is not relied on for offense, and has served its role, playing minimal minutes against weaker opposition.
The defensive depth of the Ducks is equally impressive. As far as ice-time, the workload is split nearly in thirds. Their top-end players like Cam Fowler, Sami Vatanen, and Hampus Lindholm are capable of transitioning the team from defense to offense in a hurry and often jump in on the rush. Surprisingly though, it has been 21 year old Shea Theodore leading in offensive numbers among Ducks defensemen. Averaging 18:18 of ice time during the playoffs, Theodore has pitched in two goals and five assists. He and Fowler are the only Ducks defensemen to have scored goals. Remaining defensemen Josh Manson and Brandon Montour have been impressive in their own right.
While the two teams boast similar depth at defense, they play different styles of offense. The Ducks play a heavier game, employing heavy forechecking and typically wearing teams down to score goals. The Predators have also been a mean forechecking team this playoff season, but do so through more of a speed game. Both teams are capable of putting pucks behind opposing defense and generating zone-time.
The Captain and the Kids
The Ducks offense begins with their captain Ryan Getzlaf. He led the team with 73 points in the regular season. Throughout the playoff season, he has elevated his game even further. He has eight goals and seven assists in the postseason, good for first among Ducks skaters. The usual suspects of Corey Perry and Ryan Kesler have been solid, but not overly impressive. Perry has only two goals and Kesler has one.
In their place, it’s been the youngsters Jakob Silfverberg and Rickard Rakell stepping up to round out the scoring. Silfverberg has seven goals and four assists. Rakell, after a breakout season of 33 goals in 71 games played, has six goals this postseason. While the aging Ducks veterans may be slowing down or, in the case of Kesler, playing more defensive roles, the younger Ducks forwards have been able to push the pace and are being rewarded on the scoreboard.
In the Predators case, their top line of Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg, and Viktor Arvidsson has been among the best in the league. In Round 1, the trio combined for 15 points in just four games. While the Blues defense managed to slow this line down, they were still dangerous in Round 2, scoring key goals and applying continual pressure. Presumably this line will draw the attention of Kesler and the Ducks top d-pairing.
Not surprisingly, after this line, it is the Predators defense doing most of the scoring. Ellis leads the team with nine points, Josi has eight, and Subban has seven. Goaltender Rinne, with three assists, has more points that a large number of Predators offensemen, including captain Mike Fisher, who has yet to appear on the score sheet. Depth center Colton Sissons is having a successful playoffs with two goals and four assists. If the Predators hope to solve the Ducks defense, they will need more contribution throughout the lineup.
This series promises to be one of the most exciting of the playoffs. The Predators shocked the hockey world by dispatching with the powerhouse Blackhawks in four games and stayed hot against the Blues. The Ducks experience shone through in their slugfest with the Oilers. If the Ducks cool heads prevail, and they find some consistency in goaltending, they may have the edge. If the Predators keep rolling, a la the 2012 Los Angeles Kings, they might have too much inertia to be stopped. In the end, the real winners are the fans, no matter their allegiance.