The second round of the NHL Playoffs gets underway Wednesday night at 8 p.m. EST with a matchup between the Nashville Predators and the St. Louis Blues. That game will be followed by the young-guns of Edmonton travelling to Anaheim to do battle with the Ducks. If the second round is half as exciting as the first round was, hockey fans will be in for a treat. The first round of the NHL Playoffs saw 18 games head to overtime, which set an NHL record, and there were several shocking outcomes that kept fans on the edge of their seats. One of those shocking outcomes came courtesy of the Predators as they swept their most-hated rival, the Chicago Blackhawks, in four straight games while surrendering just three goals.
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Many talking heads didn't give Nashville a second look when filling out their NHL Playoff bracket, and now they are left scratching their heads. They said Nashville couldn't score. They said Nashville couldn't contain the likes of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Artemi Panarin, Marian Hossa and Duncan Keith. They also said P.K. Subban wasn't the answer to get them over the hump and that they will miss Shea Weber's grit and playoff toughness. They couldn't have been more wrong. Nashville has the right combination of youthfulness and veteran presence that gels well in the playoffs. They will be in tough against the Blues. However, when a team believes it can beat anyone, not many things can happen to waiver that confidence.
On the other hand, the St. Louis Blues are a team brimming with confidence after knocking off the Minnesota Wild in five games. They got some timely scoring and clutch goaltending in a series that was closely contested in every game. The five-game series featured two overtime games and three games decided by one goal; the other two were two-goal victories. Playing in close games like these and having your team's resilience and patience tested can only help the Blues moving forward.
In terms of betting this series, Bovada has tabbed the Predators as the series favorite at -120 while the Blues check in at even-money. However, Game 1 of this best-of-seven series has the Blues favored at -120 with the total sitting at 5, -125 to the "under". If you are looking past this round, you can get both teams at +300 to win the Western Conference and +700 to lift the Stanley Cup.
But before you make up your mind, let me help you understand who should have the edge in terms of goaltending, offensive production, defensive resilience and everyone's favorite category, special teams.
Goaltending & Defense
Pekka Rinne might just be the most under-appreciated goalie left in the NHL Playoffs. During the regular season, he wasn't his normal Vezina-trophy winning self, posting just 31 wins, a 2.42 GAA and a .918 save percentage. If that's what mediocre is, most teams would take that every year from their No. 1 goalie. However, once the second season began, he has been simply superb. He allowed just three goals on 126 shots during the four-game sweep of the Blackhawks. He also had two shutouts, which almost equalled his tally of three during 61 regular season starts. It's not all Rinne though, as the defensive unit really suffocated the Blackhawks by taking away time and space. The defense corps of P.K Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm and Yannick Weber might not be a household collection of top-talent or name recognition, but their ability to limit the opposition's scoring chances are outstanding. As a team, the Predators allow just 2.68 goals per game and 30.2 shots per game.
The Blues goaltending situation has been rocky for the past few seasons, but they finally found the best version of Jake Allen and are now reaping the rewards. Allen was solid during the regular season, posting a 33-20-5 record with a 2.42 GAA and a .915 save percentage. However, most would give credit to the team in front of him for his stellar play. The Blues rank 12th in goals allowed per game (2.63) and sixth in shots allowed (28.4). They also boast the third-best penalty-kill in the league at 84.8 percent. The Blues' blueline is a little more well-known than Nashville's with the likes of Jay Bouwmeester, Alex Pietrangelo, Carl Gunnarsson and Robert Bortuzzo. The emergence of Joel Edmundson couldn't have come at a better time as he chipped in with the game-winner in Game 1 and the opening goal of Game 2.
Offense & Special Teams
Nashville rarely gets national attention, but it has quietly put together an offense unit that can score a lot of goals and take advantage of opponent mistakes. During the regular season, the Preds' averaged 2.90 goals per game (11th), 31.2 shots per game (sixth), a 9.3 shooting percentage (13th) and the 16th-best power play in the league, converting at a 19 percent clip. During the first round, their No. 1 line of Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson accounted for five goals and 10 assists. Forsberg and Johansen each scored twice while Johansen leads the team with six points. Secondary scoring has come up big as well with Colton Sissons and Kevin Fiala (who?) chipping in with two goals apiece.
The Blues, on the other hand, ranked just behind the Predators in terms of
goals for per game with 2.84. They ranked 26th in the league in shots on
goal per game (28.4) but featured a Top-10 powerplay unit that converted at
a 21.3 percent success rate. They also ranked sixth in shooting percentage
at 10 percent. For the Blues to be successful, they will need all four
lines contributing to the cause. They managed just 11 goals in their
opening round, with eight of those coming from the forwards (one empty
netter). Jaden Schwartz and Alex Steen are tied for the team lead in goals
with two, while Schwartz leads the team in overall points with five.
Superstar, Vladimir Tarsenko registered just one goal in the five games, so
he will need to get producing like Blues' fans know he can in order to give
the team the best shot at advancing.
This series doesn't look "sexy" on paper, but I expect it to be a tight, hotly-contested series, with a few overtimes and one-goal thrillers. Nashville won the regular-season series 3-2, but I don't take too much stock in those games. For me, the key to this series is which team can find its secondary scoring. Right now, the Preds' offense is clicking, and it features several game changers that can dominate and make a game-winning play. The Blues have a few of those players, too, but they've been missing in action, and if they don't show up then this could be the end of another Blues' playoff run.
Pick: Nashville in six.
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