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2019 NHL First Round Playoff Preview: Nashville Predators vs. Dallas Stars

The Predators held the edge in the season series, but the five-game season set against the Stars was awfully close. Nashville will enter the series as the favorite. Dallas won't go away quietly, however.
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In no way is it the same as a post-season series, where two foes go toe-to-toe game in and game out until one club disposes of the other, but the Predators and Stars had themselves a mini series in February that should give those quick to pick Nashville to advance over Dallas some pause. In the three-game battle, which saw the teams battle Feb. 2, Feb. 7 and Feb. 19, the Predators only narrowly got the edge on the Stars, winning two of three games with overtime the deciding factor in one of those tilts. The five-game season series between the clubs was equally as close, with Nashville able to pick up wins in three of the five games.

As noted elsewhere, the Central Division resides in too-close-to-call territory. Would anyone be surprised if the Stars were able to oust the division-leading Predators?

NASHVILLE PREDATORS
The most successful period in the Preds’ 20-season history continues. They nabbed their first berth in the Cup final in 2016-17 and their first Presidents’ Trophy in 2017-18. This season marks their first five-year playoff streak. Few teams have a more consistent and defined identity. We know the many things they do well and the few things they don’t.

Defense remains the hallmark. The team boasts one of the five lowest goals-against averages for a second straight year and still ices the NHL’s best top four on ‘D.’ No one can trump Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis plus Mattias Ekholm and P.K. Subban. The quartet is so dominant that even its least flashy guy, Ekholm, has a strong Norris Trophy case, swallowing up opposing forwards with his massive wingspan and generating surprising offense for a big shutdown defender.

The Predators usually get great regular-season goaltending from starter Pekka Rinne, the reigning Vezina winner, and backup Juuse Saros, but Rinne’s playoff implosions have become the stuff of legend. He was pulled three times in Nashville’s Round 2 loss to Winnipeg last year, including at home in Game 7. The Preds lessened Rinne’s workload this season in hopes of keeping him fresher for the playoffs at 36. By mid-March he’d started two-thirds of their games, his smallest piece of the pie in a healthy year since 2009-10. If the Preds get good, not even elite, netminding in the playoffs, they’re a serious Cup threat.

Viktor Arvidsson is trending toward star status, and Filip Forsberg is a reliable 30-goal producer, but Nashville’s forward group remains a collection of water pistols compared to the bazookas Winnipeg, Tampa Bay, Washington and Toronto bring to the fight. The Preds’ next 40-goal scorer will be the first in their history. GM David Poile added Mikael Granlund and Wayne Simmonds at the trade deadline to help.

X-Factor: Wayne Simmonds ranks second to Alex Ovechkin in power-play goals since 2013-14. Nashville’s power play ranked last on trade-deadline day, making Simmonds a no-brainer acquisition, even if he’s in decline at 30. On top of his net-front presence, he brings physicality and size. Speed and skill trumps brute force in today’s game, but the current championship template, the Capitals, blended speed, skill and size. To defeat Winnipeg, the Preds need a power forward fit to battle intimidators Dustin Byfuglien and Jacob Trouba. Simmonds can even flip the script and soften those guys up.

DALLAS STARS
Coach Jim Montgomery was known for an up-tempo style at NCAA Denver when the Stars hired him last May, so the expectation was more offense. Interestingly, while Dallas improved, it was for the opposite reason: this club is extremely stingy. By mid-March, it allowed the fewest goals of any Western Conference club. Its young defense corps moves the puck up ice quickly. John Klingberg does it as well as any blueliner, and teenager Miro Heiskanen has shown maturity. He looks like a future Norris threat.

Goalie Ben Bishop has enjoyed his best season since his Vezina-contending days with the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Stars, who consistently have one of the league’s toughest travel schedules, always play their backups a ton, and Anton Khudobin has sparkled.

But where would this team be without its superb goaltending? Defensively, aside from a strong penalty kill, there’s a smoke-and-mirrors show happening in Dallas. The stat “PDO” blends shooting percentage and save percentage for an indication of how lucky a team is, and Dallas’ PDO ranks fifth in the West. The Stars are a below-average possession team, allowing nine more shot attempts than they generate every 60 minutes at 5-on-5. They do a good job limiting high-danger chances but, as a whole, are highly reliant on goaltending – which is extremely problematic for a team so anemic offensively. The Stars ranked 29th in goals per game.

Their annual bugaboo has been a lack of scoring from forwards not named Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov – but the problem has worsened with Benn having a down year. None of the Stars’ young forwards developed as needed to become scorers worthy of top-six roles. Valeri Nichushkin, a 2013 first-rounder who returned from the KHL, finished without a goal.

X-Factor: Credit to GM Jim Nill for recognizing his team’s desperate need for secondary scoring. He went out and got it, acquiring Mats Zuccarello from the Rangers the weekend before the trade deadline. ‘The Norwegian Hobbit’ arrived from New York on fire, with 22 points in his previous 16 games, and kept it up with two points in his first two periods as a Star. Then, some rotten luck: a blocked shot resulted in a broken arm requiring surgery. Dallas didn’t even have him for a full game. He's back in the lineup now, which is a good thing, because the Stars are much more dangerous offensively with Zuccarello.

SEASON SERIES:
Nov. 10, 2018 – NSH 5, DAL 4 (OT)
Dec. 27, 2018 – DAL 2, NSH 0
Feb. 2, 2019 – DAL 3, NSH 1
Feb. 7, 2019 – NSH 3, DAL 2 (OT)
Feb. 19, 2019 – NSH 5, DAL 3

SCHEDULE:
Wednesday, April 10, 9:30 p.m.: Stars at Predators
Saturday, April 13, 6 p.m.: Stars at Predators
Monday, April 15, 9:30 p.m.: Predators at Stars
Wednesday, April 17, 8 p.m. Predators at Stars
*Saturday, April 20, TBD: Stars at Predators
*Monday, April 22, TBD: Predators at Stars
*Wednesday, April 24, TBD: Stars at Predators
(All games listed in Eastern Time)

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