2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview: Nashville Predators vs. Colorado Avalanche

Nashville Predators left wing Viktor Arvidsson (33), of Sweden, is congratulated by goalie Pekka Rinne (35), of Finland, after Arvidsson scored a goal against the San Jose Sharks in the third period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. (Mark Humphrey/AP)

Congratulations to the Colorado Avalanche for turning around an historically bad 48-point 2016-17 season to get 95 points and a spot in the playoffs. Your prize: a first-round matchup with the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Nashville Predators.

Thanks to an MVP-type season from Nathan MacKinnon and other key contributions from the likes of Tyson Barrie and backup Jonathan Bernier, Colorado clinched their spot on the second-last day of the season with a win against the St. Louis Blues. Since it was a win-and-get-in game on Saturday, the Avs already got a taste of playoff hockey and looked great in it.

But the Predators are certainly not the Blues, and they have all sorts of weapons and depth. Pekka Rinne is the favourite to take home this year’s Vezina Trophy and their vaunted blue line was the highest scoring back end in the league, led by 59 points from P.K. Subban, who should get Norris consideration. A team once lacking at centre is now strong at the position, with Ryan Johansen acquired two seasons ago, Kyle Turris picked up this season, and a couple of vets in Nick Bonino and late-season signing Mike Fisher filling out the bottom six. On the wings, Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson, Nashville’s top two scorers, both evened career-best seasons, while 21-year-old Kevin Fiala had a breakout.

The fear from Colorado’s side is that they are too much of a one-line team on offence, where Nashville can come in waves both up front and on the blue line. The Avs will be without minute-eater Erik Johnson to start the playoffs, and starter Semyon Varlamov is out for the rest of the season. At least we’ve seen both Barrie and Bernier step up for clutch performances throughout this season. It’s just a matter of if the Avs have enough to hang with the deeply talented Preds.

ADVANCED STATS
5-on-5 via Corsica.Hockey
Nashville: 51.52 CF% (9th), 56.61 GF% (2nd), .936 SP% (1st), 8.19 SH% (8th), 101.74 PDO (3rd)

Colorado: 47.57 CF% (27th), 52.07 GF% (15th), .932 SP% (3rd), 8.21 SH% (7th), 101.45 PDO (6th)

POWER NUMBER
Determined by percentiles created for a variety of statistics and weighed equally to give each team a grade out of 10 for offence and defence (seven for 5-on-5 and three for special teams). These numbers are then averaged to come up with a power number to measure a team’s all-around play.

TEAM OFFENCE (rank) DEFENCE (rank) POWER NUMBER (rank)
Nashville 6.38 (8th) 5.42 (13th) 5.90 (9th)
Colorado 3.60 (23rd) 4.35 (18th) 3.97 (23rd)

TEAM STATS
Nashville: 21.2 PP% (12th), 81.9 PK% (6th), 261 GF (7th), 204 GA (2nd)

Colorado: 21.9 PP% (8th), 83.3 PK% (4th), 255 GF (10th), 236 GA (14th)

HEAD-TO-HEAD RECORD
Nashville: 4-0-0

Colorado: 0-3-1

Nashville Predators Outlook: The NHL’s most complete team, and one whose only real hiccup came at the very beginning of the season with a 5-4-2 start, Nashville is the team to beat in the Western Conference. For all the attention given to the Boston Bruins and their incredible run this season, Nashville has a comparable record since Jan. 1, their 29-8-6 ranking slightly higher than Boston’s 28-9-6.

The Predators really do have it all. Their blue line is the envy of the league, with three credible players you could build a Norris Trophy case for: Mattias Ekholm, Roman Josi and P.K. Subban, who really deserves more buzz for the award. No team got more offence from its blue line this season, and it’s not their only source of goals.

Up front, Filip Forsberg blew away his career best in points per game, while Viktor Arvidsson showed last season’s career-best on offence wasn’t a fluke. Those are your top two scorers. Ryan Johansen has settled in as a consistently producing setup man, while 21-year-old Kevin Fiala came through with a breakout season after getting injured early in last year’s playoff run. Ryan Hartman, 23, was another young player with speed added at the trade deadline. Eeli Tolvanen, the 30th-overall pick last summer, was signed after his terrific KHL season ended, and it says a lot about the depth of this team’s forwards that there’s a question of whether or not he cracks the lineup in Game 1.

And in net, Pekka Rinne is having one of his best seasons ever and put himself in the running (arguably the lead) for the Vezina Trophy. This team quite literally has it all.

Snoop Dogg approves.

Colorado Avalanche Outlook: After getting just 22 wins and 48 points a season ago, the Avalanche traded disgruntled star Matt Duchene early on for a package of futures that, while an excellent haul, was not supposed to give them a boost right away. But something turned on for them after the trade. This undeniably became MacKinnon’s team as he launched himself into the MVP discussion. Sam Girard, a 19-year-old defenceman acquired in the Duchene trade, proved he was not only ready for full-time NHL duty, but became a key asset on the power play.

In terms of unsung heroes, Bernier’s play has been a saving grace as Varlamov has missed time with various injuries this season and will not play in the playoffs. Not enough can be said for how important Bernier’s 19-13-3 record was to getting this team in the playoffs. Up front, the checking unit of Carl Soderberg between Matt Nieto and Blake Comeau has been an important shutdown unit at even strength, and the first three over the boards for the fourth-ranked PK unit.

After the first line and top defence pair, though, the offence takes a dip. Colorado is still building towards better days in the future, and this Nashville team represents what the Avs hope to one day be.

Predators X-Factor: The Predators were the most penalized team in the NHL this season, with 14 more minor penalties and 20 more times shorthanded than any team in the league. Overall, their penalty kill has mostly been able to make up for this with an 81.9 per cent kill rate, though 13 teams have posted better PK numbers than Nashville since the beginning of March.

Special teams are such a focus in the post-season, where even-strength goals are harder to come by. The Predators need to find a way to not be in the box so often. Last year’s Anaheim Ducks were the only team in the past 10 years to lead the league in times shorthanded and make it past Round 2 of the playoffs.

Avalanche X-Factor: While the top line absolutely has to score tons to give Colorado a chance, since the third line is a more traditional shutdown unit, Line 2 will have to find ways to score. Alex Kerfoot, 23, and Tyson Jost, 19, are the most offensively inclined players on that trio, but both are getting their first taste of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and, while they had promising years, combined for 65 points — just three more than Gabriel Landeskog.

Nashville has four lines and four defencemen that can find goals to come at the Avalanche with. Colorado needs to be able to answer with more than one line of scoring consistency.

TEAM LEADERS (G-A-PTS)
Nashville: Filip Forsberg (26-38-64), Viktor Arvidsson (29-32-61), P.K. Subban (16-43-59)

Colorado: Nathan MacKinnon (39-58-97), Mikko Rantanen (29-55-84), Gabriel Landeskog (25-37-62)

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