The NHL's Western Conference Finals gets underway Friday night at 9:00 p.m. EST when Nashville travels to Anaheim to tangle with the Ducks. At the beginning of the year, these two teams were in the bottom half of the league in terms of odds to actually make it this far. Fast forward seven months and the Predators are playing outstanding hockey, while the Ducks are getting timely contributions from their main guys. Unfortunately for the league, the only people who care about this series are the locals since neither team has a wide fan base. I'm sure Gary Bettman is already thinking about damage control once the network ratings come out for these games.
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I'm not going to lie, I'm a bit shocked that the Ducks were able to put it all together and play one of their best games of the season in Game 7 against the Oilers. The Ducks had lost their last four Game 7s, and I thought they were going to get run out of the building once again. Instead, they were the more aggressive team from the drop of the puck and held Edmonton to just one goal on 24 shots. That's not bad considering the firepower the Oilers possess. This series will be a big challenge for the Ducks since Nashville has a more complete team compared to Edmonton. They have four solid lines, three solid D-pairings and a world-class goalie.
On the other hand, the Nashville Predators are the only team I wouldn't want to play in the third round of the playoffs. They are brimming with confidence after knocking off a very good St. Louis team in six games. They controlled the majority of the action and never really looked panicked. They have a solid mix of veteran experience and youthful ignorance and seem like a team of destiny. If you are a Montreal fan, I feel sorry for you, because I think P.K. Subban has a legitimate shot to win the Stanley Cup.
In terms of betting this series, Bovada has tabbed the Predators as the series favorite at -130, while the Ducks check in at +110. However, Game 1 of this best-of-seven series has the Ducks favored at -115, with the total sitting at 5, -130 to the "over". If you are looking past this round, you can get the Ducks at +250 to win the Stanley Cup and the Preds at +300.
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
To start this paragraph in my last article, I wrote "Pekka Rinne might just be the most under-appreciated goalie left in the NHL Playoffs." If that's not the truth now, I don't know what is. Rinne outplayed his goaltending counterpart, Jake Allen, despite Allen posting very solid numbers. Allen stopped 140 of 154 shots, which is good for a .909 save percentage. Rinne somehow made that look unimpressive. The Predators goalie stopped 151 of 162 shots, which is good enough for a .932 save percentage. That's easily the best of the second round. The defensive 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 they were able to shut down one of the leagues best snipers, Vladimir Tarasenko. Tarasenko scored just twice in the series, and because of that the offense sputtered along.
While it was one of the higher-scoring second-round series of the playoffs, Ducks goalie John Gibson was able to come up huge when it mattered most. He was brilliant in Game 7, turning away 23 of 24 shots and keeping the lethal duo of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl off the scoresheet. While Gibson can claim some of the credit, most of it goes to the defensive unit that showed up at the right time. Cam Fowler's return and the emergence of Sami Vatanen really helped the back end overcome the loss of Kevin Bieksa in Game 1 of this series. The only real concern I have with the Ducks is how they are going to cope with a team like Nashville that has balanced scoring up and down the lineup.
Offense & Special Teams
At this late stage in the NHL Playoffs, secondary scoring is a necessity and no team has better secondary scoring than the Nashville Predators. The Preds have quietly put together an offensive unit that gets contributions from up and down the lineup - including the defensemen. During the Blues' series, they were able to score 15 goals in the six-game series. The first line of Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson accounted for just six points after torching the Blackhawks for 15 in the first round. Instead, it was James Neal who led the forwards with three goals, while defensemen Ryan Ellis, P.K. Subban and Roman Josi combined for six goals and nine assists. The Predators special teams were also a huge factor in this series. They scored four times with the man advantage while holding the Blues to just one goal in 16 powerplay opportunities.
The Ducks, meanwhile, rely on older, more methodical players like Corey
Perry, Ryan Kesler and Ryan Getzlaf to get the job done. Kesler's line will
be responsible for shutting down the Forsberg/Arvidsson/Johansen line, so
any offensive production from his line would a bonus. As a team, however,
the Ducks tend to struggle to score goals, posting just 2.68 (18 th) on 29.6 shots per game (23rd). If the Ducks can't
muster at least three goals per game in this series, Rinne will likely have
an easy time of it and the Ducks may find themselves watching the Stanley
Cup Finals from their beach house.
Everything points to Nashville winning this series despite not having home-ice advantage. Call me a sucker, but I'm buying into the "team of destiny" thing. I think Subban gets to the Finals and has a legitimate shot at winning his first Stanley Cup and bringing it back to Montreal to rub salt in the wounds of the locals. As you've already read, I've given the Preds the advantages all over the ice. For the Ducks to win this series, Gibson will have to outplay Rinne, which I don't see happening. Rinne and the secondary scoring of the Predators are the difference-makers in this series, and I see Nashville winning this on home ice in Game 6.
Pick: Predators in six.
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