Nashville Predators

NHL playoff series digested: Pittsburgh Penguins – Nashville Predators (4-2)

And then there were two. The sixth appearance on the decisive round for the Pittsburgh Penguins, wrapping up their 50th year of existence; the maiden Stanley Cup Final for the Nashville Predators, culminating the franchise’s 18th season on a bustling explosion of sound and energy as an NHL Championship game was contested in the state of Tennessee for the first time.

Almost two months of blood, sweat and tears winding up into five consecutive affairs dominated by the home side and then, at the sixth assault, the Penguins making the best of their first match point to daze the boisterous Bridgestone Arena and lift the emblematic silver chalice on the road, as they always seem to do.

Nineteen years later, the NHL had a back-to-back Champion again: the Pittsburgh Penguins, who collected their fifth title (91’, 92’, 09’, 16’, 17’) to tie the Edmonton Oilers as the non-Original Six organization with the most Championship banners.

Series Results:

Game 1: Nashville Predators 3 @ 5 Pittsburgh Penguins

Game 2: Nashville Predators 1 @ 4 Pittsburgh Penguins

Game 3: Pittsburgh Penguins 1 @ 5 Nashville Predators

Game 4: Pittsburgh Penguins 1 @ 4 Nashville Predators

Game 5: Nashville Predators 0 @ 6 Pittsburgh Penguins

Game 6: Pittsburgh Penguins 2 @ 0 Nashville Predators

 

Pittsburgh’s arena turns into Pekka Rinne’s house of horrors

The Penguins and the confines of their arena had never been kind to Pekka Rinne, who was winless in 7 career starts versus the defending Champions – including three in Pittsburgh – and accumulated pedestrian numbers (0.880 Sv%, 3.57 GAA) in the process, however few man glimpsing at those stats before the Final began would have anticipated the debacle to come. After all, the regular season and the playoffs are different animals, and the 34-year-old was in the midst of an MVP-calibre postseason punctuated by stellar statistics (0.945 Sv%, 1.70 GAA, 2 SO), which drove Nashville just four wins away from the Cup.

The bottom line, though, was that to achieve their ultimate goal, Nashville needed to steal one win in Pittsburgh and that proved impracticable with the kind of performance Rinne delivered in front of an unfamiliar, unwelcoming mass of yellow.

Jake Guentzel skates past Predators’ goaltender Pekka Rinne after scoring the game-winning-goal in Game 1 (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

In three road starts, the Finnish goaltender allowed a perplexing 11 goals in just 45 shots to amass a 0.755 Sv% and a baloney 5.40 GAA, getting the hook in Games 1 and 6 and looking devoid of answers to halt the Penguins’ momentum as they pumped 3 goals in a 4:11 min span at the end of the first in Game 1, and, again, when they blitzed 3 more in a 3:28 min stretch to start the final period of Game 2.

Whilst Rinne can be absolved for plays that involved quick passing sequences or off the rush, top-shelf finishes, that still leaves us with a handful of situations he should have dealt with much better. The pucks that deflected off Mattias Ekholm’s knee (Game 1) and Vernon Fiddler’s stick (Game 2) shouldn’t have gone in, and the same applies to the opening markers for the Penguins in each Game: Evgeni Malkin’s long-distance slapshot in Game 1, Jake Guentzel’s sneaky shot in tight in Game 2, and Justin Schultz’s unscreened blueline screamer in Game 6.

Scott Wilson’s (#23) shot gets deflected by Nashville’s Vernon Fiddler (#83) before finding the back of Rinne’s net in Game 2 (Photo by Matt Kincaid/Getty Images)

Nashville’s netminder performed much better at home and watched as his direct foil, Matt Murray, struggled similarly in adverse surroundings in Games 3 and 4 yet, contrastingly, the Penguins’ goaltender rebounded to steal the show on the return to Nashville in Game 6, closing the series with 51 saves in 51 shots faced over the last two games.

Pittsburgh’s superior offensive potency adds up

Nashville was able to muster enough offense to duck out Anaheim in the Western Conference Final despite losing Ryan Johansen mid-series however, without their top-line centre and skilled winger Kevin Fiala, they looked severely overmatched by a Penguins’ team brimming with elite scoring weapons up front.

In a series where Pittsburgh’s top six forwards (Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, Guentzel, Kunitz and Sheary) combined for 11 goals and 29 pts, Nashville’s remaining stars couldn’t step up, with Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson and James Neal limited to one goal each, and taking a backseat to the Predators’ only multi goal scorer in the series, rookie Frederick Gaudreau (3 goals).

Pittsburgh’s Phil Kessel (#81, right) and Evgeni Malkin (#71, left) react after the Penguins’ fourth goal in Game 2 (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)

Additionally, Nashville’s deficit of top-end finishers was further amplified on the road, where they scored just four goals in three matches, and it eventually spilled late in the series, with the Predators unable to solve Matt Murray in Games 5 and 6 to close the Final with a 13-19 goals-for deficit (8-14 at 5-on-5). In these circumstances, it wouldn’t matter that Nashville’s powerplay, their Achilles heel during the playoffs, bounced back to tally 4 times in 18 chances (22.2%) during the Final, outperforming Pittsburgh’s vaunted man-advantage (2 in 22; 9.1%).

A disheartening tale of bad breaks

No team clutches the Stanley Cup without benefitting from a dose of fortune along the way and, in this case, a litany of factors cooperated to side-track Nashville’s challenge and facilitate Pittsburgh’s job in the Final.

Take the case of the controversial disallowed goals that would have given Nashville the lead in two of their losses. PK Subban’s ice breaker in Game 1 was taken back for offside because Filip Forsberg’s skate was floating millimetres off the ice at the blue line several seconds before the puck ultimately kissed the net, while Colton Sissons’ tap-in in the second period of the crucial Game 6 was called back after the referee blew the whistle too early. Those were potential series-defining moments, and really tough breaks for a team that also saw two pucks carom into his net after ricocheting on unsuspecting defenseman.

A falling Colton Sissons (#10) pokes the puck in during the second period of Game 6, but the referee is already blowing the whistle. No Goal for Nashville. (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

Moreover, Nashville edged Pittsburgh by a healthy margin in most possession (174-144 SOG, 269-218 CF, 54.54 adj. CF%) and scoring chances metrics (SCF 117-103; 53.18%) but couldn’t make it count on the scoreline, especially on the road. In Game 1, the Predators controlled the play extensively (SOG 26-12 SCF 19-13, HD CF 6-2) and held the opponent to a extraordinary 37-min shot-less streak, only to see it end on a Jake Guentzel snipe that shattered their 3-goal rally, while, in Game 2, they pressed to regain the lead in the second period (16-7 CF, 7-0 SOG, 8-2 SCF) to no avail, and the Pens exploded after the intermission to snatch victory.

A blend of bad luck and ineptitude that climaxed on the perfect storm that hit Nashville in Game 6, with the aforementioned refereeing decision, a fantastic exhibition by Matt Murray, a 32-second 5-on-3 man-advantage wasted late in the third period and, then, the fortuitous bounce off the boards and the back of the net which resulted on Patric Hornqvist’s Cup clinching-goal with just 1:35 minutes to go in regulation.

Patric Hornqvist (#72, white) banks the puck off goaltender Pekka Rinne to score the Stanley Cup winning goal in the dying seconds of Game 6 (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Best players in the series

Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh Penguins)

A close call between Crosby and linemate Jake Guentzel (4G, 1A, +4, 5 EVP, 2 GWG) – who bounced back impressively from a terrible Eastern Final – but we’ll give the honour to the Penguins’ captain and eventual Conn Smythe Trophy winner.

After amassing an ordinary 13 pts in 19 previous Stanley Cup Final appearances (2008, 2009, 2016), the native of Cole Harbour, NS, finally cleared the point per game threshold in the definitive playoff series, collecting 1 goal (in Game 4), 6 assists and a series-best +5 rating (6-1 GF) in 19:43 min of action, third highest total on the team and three minutes more than any other Penguins forward.

Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby (#87) tries to fend off three Nashville players in Game 5 (Photo by Justin K. Aller/NHLI via Getty Images)

Facing off the Roman Josi/Ryan Ellis defensive pair, Crosby displayed his tremendous all-around skills to stand out as one of Pittsburgh’s best players with a 47.38 adj. CF% and 50.0 SCF%, excelling close to the goal (18-8 HD CF) and raising his level of play in the last few games, topping in a Game 5 where he picked up 3 assists.

Frederick Gaudreau (Nashville Predators)

The 24-year-old rookie entered the history books as just the 2nd player to score his first 3 NHL goals in a Cup Final, and, in addiction, two of those went down as the game-winning-goals, earning Nashville their first ever victories at this prominent stage.

Mostly deployed as the fourth-line center, Gaudreau performed solidly (52.57 adj. CF%, 57.45 SCF%, 11-9 HD CF) but only enjoyed 11:16 min of TOI per game in a highly sheltered role, therefore we’ll also use the opportunity to sing praises to PK Subban and not because of his off-ice antics (*bad breath*).

Nashville center Frederick Gaudreau (#32) slides the puck into the net in Game 4 (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Relishing the big lights, the magnanimous defenseman was sensational driving play (64.05 adj. CF%, 63.10 SCF%) throughout the Final, and subjugated Evgeni Malkin (37.33 adj.CF%, 28.30 SCF%) even if he failed to ignite the scoresheet (0 goals, 2 assists).

Will the Nashville Predators return to the playoffs next year?

Definitely, even if the Central congregates a bunch of teams (Dallas, Chicago, St. Louis, Minnesota) aspiring to win the Division and someone may be squeezed out. Not Nashville, though, and I wouldn’t wager against them reaching a second consecutive Stanley Cup Final with a roster that GM David Poile meticulously assembled through impact trades over the last couple of years.

At the off season’s onset, days after succumbing in the Final, Nashville lost a key forward in winger James Neal, whose goal scoring ability and 5M cap hit proved too enticing for the Golden Knights in the expansion draft, yet the Predators are still in excellent shape going forward with the core group guaranteed to be together for the next two seasons following the new contracts handed out to Ryan Johansen (8 years x 8 M) and Viktor Arvidsson (7 year at a 4.25M cap hit).

Viktor Arvidsson, here celebrating with Predators’ fans in Game 4, will remain in Nashville for the next seven years (Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)

The two forwards have their prime seasons ahead, and Poile did a good job locking them down at manageable rates, especially Arvidsson, who joins the likes of Roman Josi (UFA 2020), Mattias Ekholm (2022) and Ryan Ellis (2019) as players whose value is bound to far exceed their earnings.

As far as addictions, the Predators biggest splash in free agency was the acquisition of center Nick Bonino, who will carry a 4.1M cap hit for the next four seasons and fill, right away, the void of retired captain Mike Fisher. Moreover, 35-year-old Scott Hartnell inked a low risk, 1M deal to enjoy a second term in Nashville after being bought out by Columbus, while former 7th overall pick Colin Wilson was traded to Colorado for botching successive stints on the top-six.

The last transaction can also be seen as a serious wake-up call to 27-year-old Craig Smith – signed at 4.25M for three more seasons – who may find himself on the way out as soon as guys like Kevin Fiala (RFA 2019), Pontus Aberg (RFA 2018) and Colton Sissons (RFA 2019) need raises, or a promising prospect – probably 21-year-old Vladislav Kamenev – steps to the plate.

Colton Sissons (#10) beats Pittsburgh’s Matt Murray in Game 1 (Photo by Matt Kincaid/Getty Images)

For now, though, Nashville is in solid ground cap-wise, with 6M to spare and boasting a stellar blueline that was further strengthened after they relieved 31-year-old Alexei Emelin off Vegas’ defensive logjam, pining a third round pick to ensure the Golden Knights also retained a 1.1M portion of his salary. In goal, Pekka Rinne has two years left at 7M, and that should be enough time to confirm young Juuse Saros (RFA 2018) is the right man to take over for a team that might just be entering its Championship window.

Will the Pittsburgh Penguins return to the playoffs next year?

A whole lot would have to go wrong for them to miss out, nonetheless the Penguins margin of error has shrank significantly since the dreaded post-Cup exodus finally landed in Pittsburgh.

After chasing a second consecutive title with a virtually intact roster, Pittsburgh waved goodbye to a host of veterans this summer, including forwards Chris Kunitz (signed with Tampa Bay), Nick Bonino (Nashville) and Matt Cullen (Minnesota), defenseman Trevor Daley (Detroit) and Ron Hainsey (Toronto), and beloved goaltender Marc-André Fleury, who left after 14 years to become the starter and face of Vegas’ new NHL franchise.

Jake Guentzel (#59), Bryan Rust (#17) and Sidney Crosby (#87), pictured celebrating Pittsburgh’s goal in Game 3, will be back in a Penguins’ sweater next season (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Few doubts exist that the Penguins will continue to be a contender with all major franchise pillars (Crosby, Malkin, Kessel and Letang) secured for the next half decade, 22-year-old Matt Murray beginning a favourable three-year extension, and some of their youth up front (Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Scott Wilson) still contributing at affordable rates, yet GM Jim Rutherford’s body of work this offseason has been rather uninspiring.

To plug the gaps left by the numerous exits, he picked up veteran Finnish goalie Antti Niemi (Dallas) and rearguard Matt Hunwick (Toronto) just days after, foolishly, dropping out of the first round at the draft to acquire enforcer Ryan Reaves from St. Louis, however Rutherford is still to pull the trigger on a trade for a competent third line center that can slot behind Crosby and Malkin, a vital move to keep the team hovering the competition as the last two seasons demonstrated. At this point in time, Carter Rowney, Guentzel and Wilson are the internal options thrown around the table, and those certainly won’t cut it, much less in the playoffs.

Can these Pittsburgh Penguins make it three in a row next year? (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Furthermore, the 68-year-old executive dished out extensions to Justin Schultz (27 years old, 3 years, 5.5M per season), Brian Dumoulin (25, 6 years, 4.1M) and Conor Sheary (24, 3 years, 3M), which left the Penguins in a familiar situation: bumping the cap ceiling (2.5M away) and with no other option but to keep the conveyor belt of young talent flowing.

Hence, expect the next graduates to be 20-year-old Daniel Sprong, a 2015 second round pick, and 23-year-old Zach Ashton-Reese, signed as a UFA coming out of Northeastern University, while former 8th overall pick Derrick Pouliot enters a make or break year considering his NHL appearances decreased in each professional season. He’s on a one-year deal, and Pittsburgh will welcome every bit of contribution on the quest for a three-peat unseen in the NHL since the 1980’s.

*For an explanation of the “advanced statistics” terminology cited on this article, read Corsica’s glossary. Unless stated otherwise, all data refers to 5-on-5 play and was retrieved from Corsica.hockey (currently down), Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com.

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NHL playoff series digested: Anaheim Ducks – Nashville Predators (2-4)

One year after battling it out in seven gruelling games in the first round of the 2016 playoffs, the paths of Anaheim Ducks and Nashville Predators crisscrossed again with a bigger reward on the line: a spot on the Stanley Cup Final.

For the eight straight season a team from the state of California contested the Western Conference Final, but not even Anaheim, who reached this stage for the second time in three years, could stop the fledging Nashville Predators. Overcoming crushing injuries along the way, the Predators closed out the series in six games to become just the third Conference lowest seed to advance to the Final round in the salary cap era.

Series Results:

Game 1: Nashville Predators 3 @ 2 Anaheim Ducks (OT)

Game 2: Nashville Predators 3 @ 5 Anaheim Ducks

Game 3: Anaheim Ducks 1 @ 2 Nashville Predators

Game 4: Anaheim Ducks 3 @ 2 Nashville Predators (OT)

Game 5: Nashville Predators 3 @ 1 Anaheim Ducks

Game 6: Anaheim Ducks 3 @ 6 Nashville Predators

 

Ducks’ shutdown line wore down in the third round

Due to their inability to close out the Edmonton Oilers in Game 6, just 48 hours passed between the end of round two for the Anaheim Ducks and the beginning of the series against the Nashville Predators. Such short turnaround would stretch thin Anaheim’s roster and many key players exhibited signs of fatigue, including the in-form Ryan Getzlaf (0 goals, 4 assists, -2), however few struggled quite like the members of their rambunctious shutdown unit, Jakob Silfverberg, Ryan Kesler and Andrew Cogliano.

Anaheim’s Ryan Kesler (#17) blocks a shot in front of goaltender John Gibson in Game 2 (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Exhausted from having to chase Connor McDavid around the ice for seven games, the trio combined for just 4 pts in the series (3 from Silfverberg) and Kesler, in particular, was a diffuse shadow of his best. The two-way maven picked up just one assist (on the powerplay) in six matches, amassed an ugly -6 rating and got clobbered in the possession front (43.71 adj. CF%) as coach Randy Carlyle didn’t have the depth in personnel to scale back his usage (22:26 min TOI per game, 3:11 min SH TOI) or quality of competition.

Kesler and his linemates bandied mostly with the Predators top line of Viktor Arvidsson, Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen for the first four games, and barely absorbed the blow (GF 2-4) as the Ducks miraculously eked out a split, yet they also couldn’t make the difference later in the series (GF 1-2) when their defensive responsibilities loosened up with Johansen’s injury and the spotlight shifted from Nashville’s stars to their less heralded characters….

Nashville’s depth steps up following Johansen’s injury

The Ducks had just broken Nashville’s 10-game home playoff win streak to level the series at two and headed home for a pivotal Game 5 when the news storm was unleashed. Nashville’s top line center, Ryan Johansen, would miss the rest of playoffs with a thigh injury and captain Mike Fisher, another pivot, would sit alongside him in the stands to carve two massive holes in the middle of the Predators’ lineup.  Meanwhile, Anaheim would be without the services of Rickard Rakell, probably their best forward in the series until then, and goaltender John Gibson would soon join him in the infirmary after sustaining a lower-body injury in the first period of Game 5.

Consequently, both teams were left scrambling at a crucial juncture of their postseason run – the team that wins Game 5 to take a 3-2 lead in a best-of-7 series was 198-54 in NHL history – and yearning for the emergence of the proverbial playoff heroes. For Anaheim’s undoing, those who seized the moment were Nashville’s grinders.

Nashville’s Pontus Aberg scores as he falls to the ice in Game 5 (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

With nine minutes left on the clock and the score tied at one in Game 5, Ducks’ backup goaltender Jonathan Bernier stopped Filip Forsberg’s shot only to watch as rookie Pontus Aberg spectacularly dove in and swiped the rebound into the net for the game-winning goal. The Swedish winger had just been elevated to top-six status, and his newly-formed partnership with Forsberg and regular fourth-line center Colton Sissons had more shenanigans up its sleeve.

Bottom-six forward Austin Watson broke the ice just 81 seconds into Game 6, and then it was the Sissons’ show. The 23-year-old doubled the lead in the first period, whacked home the puck to reclaim the two-goal advantage in the second, and later completed his first career hat-trick with six minutes to go to bomb the Preds in front for good.

Colton Sissons (L), Pontus Aberg (R) and Filip Forsberg (C) celebrate Sissons’ second goal in Game 6 (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

Watson would still add an empty netter and Pontus Aberg ended the night with two primary assists as Nashville’s depth sunk a Ducks squad that also received goals from overlooked parts like Ondrej Kase and Chris Wagner. However, they couldn’t make it count, going 0-7 on the powerplay in Games 5 and 6 and bobbling the puck on a late man-advantage that expired moments before Sissons scored the series-deciding marker.

Anaheim gets ransacked in third periods

The Ducks’ propensity to easily surrender momentum and cough away early leads had already emerged at various points during their previous series, and it would eventually prove fatal against the Nashville Predators.

For instance, on their first three defeats to the Predators, Anaheim scored first but couldn’t find a way to secure victory. They allowed the Predators to answer back with two goals in Game 1 before falling in overtime, played with fire in Game 3, when Nashville tied in the beginning of the third period and had two goals overruled before Roman Josi found the winner on a late powerplay, and slowly wilted in Game 5 up to the moment Pontus Aberg snatched another third period game-winning-goal.

Nashville’s Roman Josi (#59) pots his game-winning-goal in Game 3 (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Furthermore, Anaheim choked away a precious two-goal lead in the third period of Game 4 only to be saved by Corey Perry’s deflected shot in overtime, and conceded the final three goals in Game Six’s  loss right after rallying to tie the game at 3-3. All of this added up to a 10-4 goal deficit in third period play, and 10-2 (7-2 without empty net goals) in the last four games of the series, when Nashville simply found another gear and left Anaheim in the dust.

Best players in the series

John Gibson (Anaheim Ducks)

The Ducks’ goaltender may have left the ice early in Game 5 to never be seen again, but he was still the team’s finest player in the series, keeping the scores close for the first four matches even as Nashville dominated the run of play to the tune of a 57.5 share of all shots on goal and a 58.8% of 5-on-5 scoring chances for.

Ducks’ goaltender John Gibson makes a save in Game 3 (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

John Gibson responded to the assault by amassing an excellent 0.939 Sv% and 2.16 GAA, besting his counterpart Pekka Rinne (0.911 Sv%) to force the 2-2 tie after four games. However, unfortunately for Anaheim, when the 23-year-old went down injured, backup Jonathan Bernier couldn’t pick up the slack, allowing 6 goals in 34 shots (0.824 Sv%), including 4 in 16 on an abysmal Game 6 performance that doomed the Ducks’ chances.

Filip Forsberg (Nashville Predators)

With five goals and two assists, the Swedish winger was the main catalyst of Nashville’s offense throughout a series where he never failed to notch, at least, a point per game.

After tallying in Games 1 and 2, Forsberg tied the score in the third periods of Games 3 and 4, forced the rebound that Pontus Aberg nodded home for the game-winning-goal in Game 5, and banked the empty-net goal in Game 6, yet his contributions extended well beyond the scoresheet. A two-way force, Forsberg fired 25 shots on goal, picked up a series high +6 on the strength of his 7 even-strength points, and was a tremendous driver of possession (58.55 adj. CF%), scoring chances (65.88 SCF%) and high-danger scoring chances (21-13) in 20:44 min TOI per game.

Nashville’s Filip Forsberg scores on an outstretched John Gibson in Game 2 (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Will the Anaheim Ducks return to the playoffs next year? 

The answer is, probably, yes, but another deep run may be too much to ask with the burgeoning Edmonton Oilers on the verge of breaking out.

Unless, of course, they can find a way to use their 4M salary cap cushion to upgrade the attack, especially with a skilled third line center to relieve some scoring burden from the top-six. The names of Matt Duchene (Colorado Avalanche) and Alex Galchenyuk (Montreal Canadiens) have been floated around and the Ducks might have the assets and desire to complete a deal over the next few weeks, yet, for now, Anaheim is bound to enter 2017-18 with a roster very similar to the one they carried last year.

The Anaheim Ducks will bring the band back together next season (Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)

For Ducks’ fans, that isn’t exactly bad news, since they were able to dodge the expansion draft bullet Vegas had pointed at them. The price for retaining blueliners Josh Manson and Sami Vatanen was steep – the rights for 22-year-old defenseman Shea Theodore – but GM Bob Murray was also able to package Clayton Stoner and his 3.25M cap hit to Nevada, which facilitated the huge extension thrown Cam Fowler’s way (52M over 8 years, 6.5 M per). The Ducks will thus return the same defensive core to screen goaltenders John Gibson and Ryan Miller, the 37-year-old UFA who agreed to a reasonable 2-year, 4M contract to substitute Jonathan Bernier.

Up front, Anaheim is rooted to veterans Ryan Getzlaf (32-years-old), Corey Perry (32) and Ryan Kesler (33), who will drawing the big bucks for the foreseeable future, and therefore their Stanley Cup window inches ever closer to shutting down completely as their new waves of offensive talent fail to pan out outside of Rickard Rakell, who delivers great value at 3.78M until 2022, and Jakob Silfverberg, who may well break their bank if he keeps the same upward trajectory ahead of unrestricted free agency in 2019.

Anaheim Ducks’ winger Ondrej Kase scored in Game 6 of the Western Conference Final (Photo by Sanford Myers/Getty Images)

Patrick Eaves, a 33-year-old coming off a career year, agreed to return on a 3-year deal worth 3.15M per season, and Anaheim hopes he can hold a top-six role, which would ideally belong to former 10th overall pick Nick Ritchie or fellow 21-year-old winger Ondrej Kase. Moreover, Dennis Rasmussen was picked up from Chicago to replace Nate Thompson in the bottom six, a position a guy like Sam Steel, Anaheim’s promising 1st round pick in 2016, might not be ready to crack just yet. But he, and the like, better be soon enough, or Anaheim’s plunge into the deep waters of the Western Conference may not be more than a couple of years away.

*For an explanation of the “advanced statistics” terminology cited on this article, read Corsica’s glossary. Unless stated otherwise, all data refers to 5-on-5 play and was retrieved from Corsica.hockey (currently down), Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com.

NHL playoff series digested: St. Louis Blues – Nashville Predators (2-4)

Coming off upsets in the first round, long-time Division rivals St. Louis Blues and Nashville Predators crossed paths for the first time in their playoff history with a spot in the Western Conference Final on the line.

For the Blues, a success would have represented a second consecutive appearance in the third round, something they haven’t accomplished since 1970, however Nashville proved stronger, labouring past them to rewrite the franchise’s history books, winning two consecutive playoff series for the first time ever.

Series Results:

Game 1: Nashville Predators 4 @ 3 St. Louis Blues

Game 2: Nashville Predators 2 @ 3 St. Louis Blues

Game 3: St. Louis Blues 1 @ 3 Nashville Predators

Game 4: St. Louis Blues 1 @ 2 Nashville Predators

Game 5: Nashville Predators 1 @ 2 St. Louis Blues

Game 6: St. Louis Blues 1 @ 3 Nashville Predators

 

Nashville’s blueline drives the offense

Any sensible NHL observer already knew about the embarrassment of riches on the Preds blueline and the way the backend impacts every aspect of Nashville’s game, including the generation of scoring chances, nonetheless an offensive outburst in the biggest of stages always helps drilling the point home.

In this series, the top three point getters – tied with five points – were all Predators defenseman as Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and PK Subban ruled the show while their forwards took a backseat after contributing decisively to the stunning sweep of Chicago.

For instance, Ellis scored in three consecutive matches (Games 2 to 4), including the opening goals in Game 3 and 4, to fire up the home crowd, while his partner, Josi, contributed with the insurance tally in Game 4 before tying the score in the series-clinching Game 6 off a gorgeous cross ice feed by fellow blueliner Matthias Ekholm.

Roman Josi reacts after scoring Nashville’s third goal in Game 3 (Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)

The physical Swedish defenseman put up just one other assist during the six-game slate, yet his work smothering Vladimir Tarasenko and the Blues top line was top-rate, allowing accomplice PK Subban to spread his wings offensively, namely in Game 1, when he notched a goal and two assists.

Furthermore, third pairing defensemen Matt Irwin and Yannick Weber, while pointless in just under 12 min of TOI/GP, dominated in the possession front (59 adj. CF%) and also in scoring chances (26-18 SCF) differential to round out a group that really carried the mail in the series.

Special Teams forge separation between the sides

Against the Minnesota Wild in round one, the St. Louis Blues were able to survive a rotten powerplay effort (6.7% PP conversion) due to Jake Allen’s heroics, yet very few teams are able to plow through the grind of the NHL postseason without some timely contributions from the man advantage.

The eighth best group in the regular season desperately needed to regain its mojo in time, but the second round brought an equally discombobulated unit that mimicked the numbers (1/15, the same 6.7%) recorded in the previous series, and it would prove the difference as the Predators middling special teams (15th-ranked PK and 16th-ranked PP during the regular season) stepped up.

Predators’ defenseman Ryan Ellis shovels the puck past Jake Allen in Game 4 (Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)

At even strength, Nashville and St. Louis scored 10 times apiece, but the Blues third-ranked penalty kill (84.3%) was bested in 4 of 17 opportunities, including twice in Game 1, facilitating the road triumph Nashville would need to advance, and once in Game 4, when Ryan Ellis broke the ice in the third period to push the Blues to the brink of elimination.

Moreover, the same Ellis blasted the opener in Game 3 just three seconds after Ryan Reaves elbowing penalty expired, another critical moment on a series where Vladimir Tarasenko’s lone Blues PP tally allowed his team to level Game 2 before snatching victory.  Since both teams enjoyed virtually the same time with the man advantage – 28:12 min for St. Louis versus 28:10 min for Nashville – buying an extra couple of goals, especially on the road, would have been a perfect springboard to rally the Blues back in the series.

Pekka Rinne outlasts Jake Allen in battle of hot goalies

Going into this series, there was no way to dance around the juiciest storyline: goaltenders Pekka Rinne and Jake Allen, otherworldly during the first round, were about to stare down each other and who would blink first?

It turned out both men did, performing below their high standards in Games 1 and 2 to come back to Earth, splitting wins while clocking below-0.900 Sv%, but eventually settling down over the next four matches, tight affairs that ended up as a pair of 2-1 encounters, a 3-1 showdown with an empty netter aggregated and a 3-1 Predators victory in Game 4.

Goaltenders Pekka Rinne (#35) and Jake Allen (#34) greet each other in the handshake line after Game 6 (Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)

Under such thin margins of error, Rinne would prevail over Allen by conceding just five goals in 112 shots for an outstanding 0.955 Sv%, while Allen filed in a good-but-not-great 0.918 Sv% (eight in 98) on a stretch that included three games in Nashville, where the Predators and their Finnish goaltender stringed nine consecutive playoff victories.

Overall, another test passed with flying colours by Pekka Rinne, who finished the second round with a 1.37 GAA and a 0.951 Sv% in 10 postseason games.

Best players in the series

Jaden Schwartz (St. Louis Blues)

With sniper Vladimir Tarasenko getting roughed up at every opportunity, linemate Jaden Schwartz tried to pick up the slack similarly to what he did in round 1 though he fell short this time. In six games, the 24-year-old posted two goals in 18 shots and four even strength points in just over 21 mins of ice-time per game, but still managed to maintain his head above water both in terms of possession (50.95 adj CF%) and scoring chances (50.9 SCF%).

St. Louis forward Jaden Schwartz flicks the puck past Rinne in Game 5 (Photo by Scott Rovak/NHLI via Getty Images)

Honourable mention for defenseman Joel Edmundson, whose +6 rating and 4 points collected alongside Colton Parayko on the Blues most effective pairing capped off a breakout spring campaign that gets slightly bogged down by a 7:1 giveaway/takeaway ratio in round two.

Ryan Ellis (Nashville Predators)

Amongst the cadre of Nashville’s high-flying rearguards, Ellis earns the cake because of his three-goal bundle, including two opening markers which forced the Blues to chase Games 3 and 4.

Additionally, the fully-bearded 26-year-old assisted twice, hurled 13 shots on goal and blocked a series-high 19 shots launched at his own net in 22:35 mins of TOI/GP. His partnership with Roman Josi suffered through some ups and downs, as illustrated by a 43.59 5 on 5 adj CF% and 44.9 SCF%, but there’s no denying the direct impact on the Predators’ accomplishment.

Will the St. Louis Blues return to the playoffs next year? 

Maybe. The Central Division promises to be even more competitive next year with Dallas and Winnipeg expected to mount better challenges, but don’t count the Blues out just yet even if their margin for improvement isn’t encouraging.

In fact, St. Louis is bumping against the cap ceiling and the few millions in store (5M) are earmarked for 24-year-old stud Colton Parayko, a RFA with arbitration rights that may be a prime target for an offer sheet this summer. However, don’t hold your breath as GM Doug Armstrong has indicated he’ll match any proposal since he can open critical space without shaking the foundations by swinging David Perron (3.75M), a 2018 UFA.

Re-signing towering defenseman Colton Parayko should be St. Louis’ main priority this offseason (Photo by Scott Rovak/NHLI via Getty Images)

If more is required, top-line pivot Paul Stastny, whose four-year, 28 M pact agreed in 2014 expires next summer, could be an option despite Jori Lehtera’s status as a preferable remittance at 4.7 M (2019). Meanwhile, trading Patrick Berglund (3.85M until 2022) and veteran Alex Steen (NTC, 5.75M until 2021) is tougher as both possess some kind of No-trade protection for some reason.

Fortunately, Vladimir Tarasenko (2023) and Jaden Schwartz (2021) are locked down at decent rates, as is Captain Alex Pietrangelo (2020) and starting goalie Jake Allen (2021), consequently, outside of Parayko, the Blues’ main concerns this offseason relate to the outer edges of the roster. Will fourth-liner Scottie Upshall return? Will they retain the rights for RFAs Nail Yakupov and Magnus Paarjavi, two former lottery picks who haven’t pan out? Who will be the seventh defenseman?

Not exactly roster-breaking resolutions nor expected to impact what must be taken care off in 2018: potentially tricky negotiations with the fast-improving Joel Edmundson (23-years-old) and Robby Fabbri (21).

*For an explanation of the “advanced statistics” terminology cited on this article, read Corsica’s glossary. Unless stated otherwise, all data refers to 5-on-5 play and was retrieved from Corsica.hockey (currently down), Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com.

NHL playoff series digested: Chicago Blackhawks – Nashville Predators (0-4)

On their way to the Championships in 2010 and 2013, the Chicago Blackhawks defeated the Nashville Predators in the first round of the NHL playoffs. The Western Conference top seed had realistic expectations of reviving history, but facing a spiked, underperforming lower ranked team is always dangerous, and this time the Predators came out determined to bite back and change the narrative. They couldn’t have done it in a more emphatic way, authoring the most stunning first round sweep in the NHL this century and their maiden playoff triumph in just four matches. Let’s dive into the numbers to understand how such an outcome materialized.

Series Results:

Game 1: Nashville Predators 1 @ 0 Chicago Blackhawks

Game 2: Nashville Predators 5 @ 0 Chicago Blackhawks

Game 3: Chicago Blackhawks 2 @ 3 Nashville Predators (OT)

Game 4: Chicago Blackhawks 1 @ 4 Nashville Predators

 

Pekka Rinne, the Great Finnish Wall

The career of the Predators goaltender has been dotted by more peaks and valleys than his pedigree would anticipate and, following an average regular season, all eyes were on him as pundits gauged Nashville’s chances of making a run for the Cup. In four of Rinne’s five previous playoff campaigns, his overall Sv% didn’t rise above .912, consequently it was time the Finnish goalie justified his hefty 7M cap hit in the postseason. However, few could have predicted the level of domination he displayed against the Blackhawks.

Nashville’s goaltender Pekka Rinne erected a brick wall in net during the series first two Games in Chicago

The 34-year-old stonewalled the high-flying offense of Chicago on the road in the first two games of the series, turning aside all 59 shots thrown at his net, and kept his spectacular form in the friendly confines of the Bridgestone Arena, pitching two more wins to close out the series with only three goals allowed in 126 shots faced.

That’s a scintillating 0.976 Sv% and 0.70 GAA over a near perfect series, where Rinne allowed a single even-strength goal in 115 shots (0.991 Sv%!), 15 of those of the “high-danger” variety, and posted a preposterous 6.21 goals saved above average (GSAA) rating in just four games. Such brilliance turned the Predators into the 13th NHL team to quell their opponent to three or less goals in a four-game series, and just the fourth in the last 38 years (1994 NYR, 2001 TOR, 2003 ANA & 2013 BOS).

For good measure, Rinne also picked up two assists in Game 2, something no Blackhawks player could do over the entire series.

Pounce early on to steal away home ice advantage

The noise inside Chicago’s United Center after the usual pregame festivities is further amped up come playoff time, therefore it was imperative for the Predators to withstand the impact of the first few minutes on the road, as Chicago posted the second best Win% after scoring first (0.740) during the regular season.

Furthermore, Nashville had dropped 9 of the previous 10 games in Chicago and compiled the worst road record amongst playoff teams in the NHL this season, yet the visitors looked anything like an anxious bunch as they scored early in both games to put the Blackhawks on their heels.

The tallies by Viktor Arvidsson, with 7:52 min played in Game 1, and Ryan Ellis, just 3:44 min into Game 2, both due to the work of Nashville’s top forward line against the Jonathan Toews unit, calmed the crowd, injected life into Peter Laviolette’s bench and forced the Hawks to take chances and shorten the bench as the clock advanced.

In Game 1, the pressure of Chicago, especially the Kane-Anisimov-Panarin trio, almost cracked Rinne, but the Predators were able to hang on to a 1-0 victory, while in Game 2 their strategy worked to perfection. They dominated possession and scoring chance metrics throughout, and took advantage of the Hawks lackadaisical defensive play to deliver two back-breaking goals in the second period that put the game away.

Nashville Predators players celebrate the team’s 2nd goal in Game 2 (Photo by Bill Smith/NHLI via Getty Images)

Bolstered by two “by the book” road performances, the Predators returned to Tennessee with home ice advantage, a firm grasp on the series and the seed of doubt planted in the mind of their accomplished opponent.

The Predators top line tortured Chicago, the others delivered the knockout punches

Viktor Arvidsson, Ryan Johansen and Filip Forsberg combined for five goals, 17 points, a 60.2 FF%, 12 scoring chances for and just 2 against – an outstanding 88.3 SCF% -, six goals for and 0 against while on the ice.

There’s no way around it. The Predators top forward unit dismantled the Hawks, who had no answer for them even if Joel Quenneville tried everything. Going power on power with the Panarin-Anisimov-Kane line, deploy Jonathan Toews to slow them down, tap on the defensive prowess of Marcus Kruger and Marian Hossa, and shuffle his defensive pairs when Duncan Keith and Niklas Hjalmarsson (13-28 Shots For, 3-8 SCF, 0-3 GF) botched the job. Eventually, he would be forced to load up with Toews between Kane and Panarin for Game 4, and they responded with a 66.7 CF% in 18 min together, despite struggling to create chances (1-3 SCF). It was already too late.

Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson exult after tying the score late in Game 3 (Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)

With the No.1 line wreaking havoc on the Hawks, it was up to Nashville’s other forwards to find a way to impact the tie decisively, and all units had their moment in the sun. The physical Harry Zolnierczyk – Mike Fischer – Austin Watson group couldn’t drive play but still crafted a huge 2-0 goal in Game 2. Colton Sissons finished up a great shift by Craig Smith to follow up with the third on the 5-0 rout, and added a monumental tally in Game 4 that all but sealed the sweep. As for the second line, Kevin Fiala, Calle Jarnkrok and James Neal accounted for a 57.1 CF% and 61.6 SCF%, but looked snake bitten until they orchestrated the vital GWG in Game 3 OT.

On the other side, with the Patrick Kane unit unable to break through, the blender of Joel Quenneville functioned incessantly but to no avail. Their only 5-on-5 goal came off a good cycle by Marcus Kruger, Dennis Rasmussen and Richard Panik, opening the score in the second period of Game 3 and breaking Rinne’s SO streak, but the Hawks couldn’t hold on to the lead.

Best players in the series

Pekka Rinne (Nashville Predators)

As evidence above, the performance of Pekka Rinne was the primary factor behind the Predators smashing triumph, but many of his colleagues also excelled individually.

For instance, center Ryan Johansen, who was a force up the middle and collected a series-high 6 pts (1+5), or Filip Forsberg, who posted 5 pts, including two goals in Game 3 to rally the Predators back. Meanwhile, defenseman Roman Josi netted twice in the series-clincher and his pairing with Ryan Ellis amassed a +5 rating in spite of heavy deployment and a whole lot of rubber flying around (24 blocked shots accumulated between the two).

Patrick Kane (Chicago Blackhawks)

The reigning Hart Trophy winner couldn’t rise above the nightmarish series for the Hawks, failing to hit the scoresheet with the regularity Chicago fans expected, but it wasn’t for a lack of effort. While fellow superstars Jonathan Toews (-5) and Duncan Keith (-6) were mostly invisible, Kane flung a series-high 23 SOG, logged 23:55 min TOI/GP, and notched a PP goal in Game 3 to extend the Hawks lead at the time. And while things never broke his way, he wasn’t careless with the puck, giving the puck away only once and picking up three takeaways.

Will the Chicago Blackhawks return to the playoffs next year? 

Absolutely. There’s probably another long run left in this group although the Blackhawks status as the class of the West is ever more fragile with every member of the core over 28 years old and hence with its best years behind. More importantly, there’s not one of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Artem Anisimov, Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Corey Crawford that doesn’t possess some kind of NMC/NTC protection, which severely limits Stan Bowman’s ability to shake things up after a second consecutive first round exit.

The responsibility to bring the team back into title contention next year falls on the Chicago Blackhawks’ core group (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

Unless they decide – and find a way – to offload Seabrook, Crawford, Hossa or Anisimov, with Artemi Panarin’s extension kicking in and his cap hit jumping to 6M, the Hawks have minimal margin (around 3M) to compose their roster with two blueliners that can fill in for veterans Brian Campbell and Johnny Oduya – whose time in Chicago should be finished for good -, a couple of depth forwards and a solid backup goalie, now that Scott Darling appears ready for a more prominent role elsewhere.

RFA Richard Panik priced himself out of Chicago with a 22-goal season, and his role will have to be assumed by one of the young players that populated the lower lines this season (Ryan Hartman, Nick Schmaltz, Tanner Kero, Vinnie Hinostroza, Dennis Rasmussen) with mixed results. Unless the exciting Alex DeBrincat, who scored 65 times in 63 OHL regular season games this season, can jump right into the spotlight.

*For an explanation of the “advanced statistics” terminology cited on this article, read Corsica’s glossary. Unless stated otherwise, all data refers to 5-on-5 play and was retrieved from Corsica.hockey (currently down), Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com.