2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs Western Finals Prospectus: Nashville Predators vs. Anaheim Ducks
The NHL playoffs are a tricky game. The better team does not always win; as we have seen in successive nights this week alone. Nashville has been the “underdog” in both their series to this point, and have not possessed home ice advantage entering either series.
And they won’t in this one, either.
It hasn’t mattered.
Nashville has the best defence in the NHL. It is arguably not close. Their top 4 all contribute heavily to the score sheet, and they defend. A novel concept for some teams, but not to a hard-edged and master tactician like Peter Laviolette. The trade of Shea Weber (who, make no mistake about it, is in physical decline; albeit gradual) for P.K. Subban was another stroke of genius by the NHL’s best general manager, David Poile. Subban and Roman Josi are two of the absolute best two-way defencemen in the league. They dictate terms. It takes pressure off the Preds’ forwards who sometimes — okay often, in Filip Forsberg’s case — disappear when the playoffs ramp up. It is part of the reason the Preds are only now making their first Conference Finals in franchise history.
As it is, the team has received contributions from up and down the lineup. Noticeably absent from those tallies is winger Viktor Arvidsson, the mercurial bundle of energy who helped pace the Preds in goal scoring before Forsberg had his typically monstrous second-half of the regular season. Ryan Johansen has been steady, if not unspectacular. However, he is efficient. And he wins important draws. That last point extends to Mike Fisher and even Colton Sissons. The Preds have the makeup to pound away with the Ducks, who love to play a heavy game and execute a two-forward forecheck for long periods, if coach Randy Carlyle sees fit. The Edmonton Oilers found out about that in the series-clinching Game 7 Anaheim win on Wednesday.
James Neal, Colin Wilson and Austin Watson will have roles in this regard.
Can Pekka Rinne continue his torrid pace? The Ducks won’t give him many shifts off. The Preds again have the best defence in the league, so they don’t ever really bleed shots. Rinne’s job has been much less stressful this year than in playoffs past, where he was constantly under siege (particularly last year) and eventually spit the bit. Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm have been every bit as important as Josi and Subban. They will need to continue to be.
Can the Ducks score enough? Despite a nonstop and relentless forecheck of nearly 40 straight game minutes against Edmonton in Game 7, the Ducks still only scored two goals. Both dirty. That won’t get it done consistently against the Preds, who have great puck movers and puck rushers. John Gibson will have to steal a game or two in this series if the Ducks are to win. He is surely capable. But he is also capable of having a stinker at the worst juncture. Edmonton does not have the depth that the Preds possess. Gibson can become a legend if he can help the Ducks reach the Stanley Cup Finals and even win the Cup. It won’t be easy.
Ryan Getzlaf has been utterly dominant all playoffs, as was an easy call for many of us heading into the playoffs; coming off a torrid above-a-point-per-game pace after the All-Star Break. Jakob Silfverberg has been superb, as well. Ryan Kesler’s tactics against Connor McDavid were mildly successful, but won’t work with the grizzled Fisher. Rickard Rakell will have more of a chance to get loose against less defensive minded wingers like Forsberg and Arvidsson. He could have a breakout series. He was on the verge as the Edmonton series wore on. Nick Ritchie had an impact in all three zones.
Corey Perry must find the touch in tight, ultimately, for the Ducks to advance. He did not in the 2016 playoffs in which the Ducks were dispatched by the Preds.
We just don’t think the Ducks can score consistently enough to win four games here. All partiality aside, as a part-time Ducks supporter, objectivity is the name of the game here. Won’t be surprised or upset if the Ducks win, but we don’t think they will. We’d pick Nashville with a bit more conviction if not for the season-ending injury suffered by Preds’ winger, Kevin Fiala, who affected things in the offensive zone. He was without cover against Chicago.
Call: NASHVILLE IN 7.