Friday, May 12, 2017

Conference final preview + predictions

Welcome to the third round of the NHL playoffs. Let's get you caught up on what's happened so far.

The worst team in the Central, according the standings, made it through. The worst team in the Atlantic, according to the experts, did, too. The Presidents' Trophy winner went home in the second round, and their fans are very sad. And in the Pacific, a top seed that never wins Game 7 captured the division by winning a Game 7.

In other words, nobody has any idea what's going on, or what's going to happen. It's chaos out there. Beautiful, beautiful chaos. Let's get to the conference final preview.

Western Conference

One team is back in the conference final for the second time in three years. The other has never been here before, ever. It's not exactly a matchup between long-established hockey markets, but it should be fun.

WC Nashville Predators vs. #1 Anaheim Ducks

In this corner: The Predators (41-29-12, 94 points, +18 goals differential not counting shootouts), who struggled through an underwhelming first half of the season before hitting their stride in time for the playoffs.

The road so far: They stunned the favored Blackhawks with a four-game sweep in the opening round, then disposed of the Blues in six to reach the conference final for the first time in franchise history.

Injury report: With the obvious yet important caveat that just about everyone is banged up at this time of year and NHL teams are under no real obligation to tell us anything, the Predators injury list is fairly empty, apart from Kevin Fiala, who is out for the year after suffering an ugly broken leg in the second round.

The big question: How do you slow down the Predators offense from the blueline? The team's big three of P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, and Ryan Ellis have combined for 24 points, with each of those players ranking among the team's top five scorers. For comparison, the team's other three blueliners have just three points total.

It's rare for a team to get that much scoring from the backend, and it's made up for the fact that the Predators forwards have been only OK. It will be interesting to see if the Ducks make any sort of adjustment to try to take away those blueline chances and force the guys up front to beat them.

One player to watch: Ryan Johansen. The fourth overall pick in the 2010 draft has long been viewed as an underrated two-way center—think along the lines of a poor man's Jonathan Toews or Anze Kopitar.

The Predators paid big to get him, surrendering Seth Jones in a blockbuster trade with the Blue Jackets last year, and for the most part he's given them what they were looking for. His 61 points tied him for the team lead, and he led the forwards in ice time. Still, he's the sort of player who always seems to leave you wanting just a little more. He has a team-leading nine points in this year's postseason, but with a matchup with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry looming, he'll be under the brightest spotlight of his career over the next two weeks.

Key number: .951, Pekka Rinne's save percentage so far in the postseason. You can dig into all sorts of numbers and narratives, but when your goaltender is stopping 19 out of every 20 shots, you're going to win.

Rinne isn't as good as his numbers indicate; he was a more pedestrian .918 on the regular season, and has been under .910 in each of his last two playoff runs before this current one. But that doesn't matter. He's red hot right now, and if he stays that way, the Predators probably win the series.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

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