Two surprise winners from the first round square off with the Blues having to find a way to break through the Predators’ seemingly impenetrable defense.
THE BLUES WIN IF…
The Wild understood following their first-round defeat that the difference-maker in the first-round against the Blues was Jake Allen. Minnesota outshot St. Louis in all but one of the five first-round games, but it was the Blues who emerged victorious thanks to the standout play from their starting netminder. No one should have been surprised ‘Jake the Snake’ played so well, though.
Heading into the post-season, Allen was playing the best hockey of his campaign. Of course, when measured on a personal scale, that’s not saying all that much. Allen was terrible in the early part of the season and even an average performance in the back half would have made him look vastly improved. But the truth is that over the final months of the season, few netminders were as sound as Allen. Since coach Mike Yeo took over on Feb. 1, no goaltender who played at least 1,000 minutes at 5-on-5 had a better save percentage or stopped a higher percentage of high-danger shots than Allen. He was outstanding. And if the Blues are going to get through to the Western Conference final, it’s likely going to have to be the Allen show once again.
Nashville, like Minnesota, has a balanced attack with plenty of scoring throughout the lineup. That means beyond Allen, a lot of pressure is going to be on the St. Louis defense to slow things down. In the first round, the Blues had a tough time shutting down a deep Wild team, but the possession numbers in the one meeting between the Predators and Yeo’s Blues seems to indicate the teams are fairly evenly matched. That wasn’t the case against the Wild. It’s also going to be key for St. Louis to stop the counter-attack and odd-man rushes that Nashville generates. As good as Allen has played, he’s going to have a tough time if he’s consistently seeing 2-on-1s or 3-on-2s.
What the Blues do with the opportunities they do get against a stingy Predators club might be what eventually separates St. Louis, though. In shutting down Chicago in the opening round, Nashville showed a smothering, suffocating defensive structure that didn’t offer many — or really any — options to an attacking team. The Blues are going to face a similar structure, no doubt, but if they can break it down and get to the net, chances will arise. At that point, it’s going to be up to the Blues to do what the Blackhawks couldn’t: capitalize.
THE PREDATORS WIN IF…
One would be hard-pressed to find a single hole in Nashville’s first-round game plan. The execution was perfect. The Predators shut down everything through the neutral zone and made a star-studded Blackhawks team look pedestrian in a four-game sweep of the Western Conference leaders. Beyond that, Nashville showed strength in the possession game, ability to turn the puck up ice in a hurry and the Predators got contributions from up and down the lineup. And if the second round is a continuation of the first, Nashville might be on their way to the first conference final in franchise history.
Defensively, the Predators are going to have their hands full once again. The Blues aren’t lacking for high-end offensive talent, but luckily for Nashville coach Peter Laviolette, his team has a stable of defenders that might be able to do what Minnesota couldn’t and shut St. Louis’ offense down. Laviolette isn’t afraid to trot his top four our regularly, either. In the four-game series against the Blackhawks, the Predators’ top four defenders all averaged more than 25 minutes per game. The combined averages of Matt Irwin and Yannick Weber, fifth and sixth in the rotation, didn’t match that.
It’s going to be important, too, that Nashville somehow manages to beat Allen, who was seemingly impenetrable in the Blues’ first-round win. The best way might not be through the Predators’ most noteworthy stars, however. Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson and Ryan Johansen are going to see big minutes against the likes of Alex Pietrangelo, Colton Parayko and Jay Bouwmeester, the best defenders St. Louis has at the ready. The same goes for James Neal and Mike Fisher. They’ll still be important to the attack, but Nashville’s edge might come from the bottom six.
There were a few games during the opening round where Kevin Fiala, who played little more than half the season with the big club, looked like as terrorizing as any other Predators forward. In Game 2, he scored a power play marker and followed that up with a Game 3 in which he put seven shots on goal and scored the overtime winner after having a few chances to end the game. It was proof of the type of offensive punch Fiala can provide when he gets free, and the focus put on Nashville’s top six might give Fiala a shot at making some noise. Don’t sleep on the rest of the third and fourth lines, either. The Predators got nine points out of the bottom half of their lineup.
Blues: Someone eventually needs to break down the Predators’ defense and who better than Vladimir Tarasenko? Tarasenko has the speed and skill to go around defenders, but the first round was evidence that Nashville won’t let that happen easy. Luckily for the Blues, then, that Tarasenko also isn’t opposed to going right through defenders. He didn’t exactly have an earth-shattering performance against the Wild, but he did score one goal and three points while generating 21 shots. Tarasenko is the perfect example of an attacker that defenders simply hope to contain, but that’s hard to do for long. If he breaks out this series, expect the Predators to be shovelling a few pucks out of the back of the net courtesy of the Russian sniper.
Predators: If the first round was any indication, Allen better get ready for a goaltending duel with Pekka Rinne. Nashville’s veteran netminder didn’t just win all four games against Chicago, he blanked the powerful Blackhawks offense twice and allowed only three goals against across the four-game series. His .976 save percentage and 0.70 goals-against average are the best marks of any starter in the post-season. That said, St. Louis was far better at generating scoring chances during the regular season than Chicago, so Rinne could be set to see more rubber from in close. If he can carry his first-round performance on to the second round, though, Nashville might not have a problem getting past the Blues.
Two young snipers square off and they’ll be the heart of the offense in this series. Both teams are coming in with goalies that stole series and broke hearts in Round 1 and it’ll be up to Vladimir Tarasenko and Filip Forsberg to solve those puzzles in net. They’ve got the skills to do it as they were each one of the league’s best scorers this season. The depth on both these teams at forwards leaves a bit to be desired, but the top lines are amazing and more than make up for it. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the two teams go power on power here and trade goals in this series, so it’ll fall on these two stars to carry the load. Both look to be close in value, with Tarasenko being the more dynamic offensive threat while Forsberg looks more responsible defensively. That defensive edge might be the difference maker if he can at least match him offensively. Jake Allen and Pekka Rinne had magnificent first rounds, but with these two guys on the ice, I’m expecting some regression in round two. (Dom Luszczyszyn)
PREDATORS in six games.