As of today, the Los Angeles Kings are the most likely first round opponent for the Predators. If the season ended today, that's who the Preds would play. But the season does not end today. With 3 games left, there is still a 45.6% chance that the Preds could play the Anaheim Ducks in the first round. The Kings and Ducks are in a photo finish for the Pacific Division, something that seemed inconceivable in December.
The last time the Preds met the Ducks in the Stanley Cup Playoffs it was 2011. The Preds would go on to win their first playoff series in franchise history, on the backs of a rag tag group of forwards like Joel Ward, David Legwand, Nick Spaling, and newly acquired Mike Fisher. Ryan Suter was still a Pred. So was Cody Franson (version 1.0).
However, even with the recent success the Preds have seen against the Ducks in the regular and post season, I'm not sure Nashville wants to meet up with the Ducks this year. They are on fiiiyaahhh.
How They Got Here
The Anaheim Ducks season, in one graph:
They were simply awful, up until mid-January, where they were simply unstoppable. They've been riding a ridiculous streak of great hockey in the second half of the season, rivaled only by your beloved Nashville Predators. Since January 13th (the halfway point of the season), the Ducks have gone 25-6-3 in 34 games. That's 53 of 68 possible points, which is insane. The Preds in that span have gone 20-7-6 in 33 games, getting 46 of 66 points, which is also pretty insane. If these two teams face off, all fire stations in Nashville and Anaheim will be on double-shifts.
Much like the Predators, the Ducks have turned their season around by simply maintaining their strategy and "staying the course." They have been a good possession team all year long (52.9% 5v5 Corsi %, good for 2nd in the league) it just took a while for the goals to come. They still aren't exactly lighting it up on the scoreboard, only generating 2.57 goals per game, good for 21st in the league. The big difference has come on defense. They've been able to maintain possession enough to limit opposing teams from wreaking havoc in their own zone, something that happened frequently at the beginning of the year. The Ducks allowed 3 or more goals in 19 games prior to January 13th... and only 11 times since.
To continue the trend, since Jan 13th, Frederik Anderson's save % climbed 7 points, from .913 to .920. John Gibson's actually went down, from .926 to .918, but he's also played in more games during this second half resurgence. The bottom line is that virtually every Duck is playing better than they were in the 1st half, and with a team as stacked as this one, this means a tough match-up for any team in the playoffs.
Match-ups To Avoid
- The NHL's Best Power-Play: Special teams are not as significant as you might think in the playoffs. Some data suggests that a team's PK unit can lead to moderate playoff success, but in general special teams just aren't a big part of what leads to Stanley Cups (see: Boston Bruins, 2011). But what about when the unit is far and away the best in the league? The Ducks power-play is crazy good, with a 23.4% success rate. Further, they've been even better since that aforementioned Jane 13th date. Since then, they've scored 32 of their 53 power-play goals. The good thing is that their PP unit is very similar to the Preds, using the blue-line heavily for scoring production. Three of their top four scorers on the power-play are defensemen (Fowler, Vatanen, Lindholm). Maybe seeing a similar unit in practice will help prepare the team to kill off such a dangerous unit.
- Ryan Kesler, the Playoff Warlock: Back in 2011, Ryan Kesler had an other-worldly series against the Predators. Scoring 5 goals and assisting 6 others, he had a hand in 11 of the Canucks' 14 goals that series. I remember his game-winning goal in OT of game 3. It was frustrating to watch such a dominating performance from a guy who had only 3 playoff goals to his name at that point. Even though the Preds roster is considerably different these days, and even though Kesler is on a different team, it is probably best not to mess with whatever dark magic Kesler is dabbling in.
Match-ups To Exploit
- Exploit recent injuries: On April 1st, the Ducks announced a rash of injuries that undoubtedly affect their roster. Andersen sustained a concussion against Calgary on Wednesday. David Perron's shoulder injury from March 20th is apparently a 4-6 week injury. Rickard Rakell, who has had a breakout year, has flu-inspired appendicitis. Hampus Lindholm and Kevin Bieksa are also shelved temporarily. If the Preds face the Ducks, they simply must take advantage of altered chemistry and new faces, especially along the blue-line. I see the Fisher-Salo-Arvy line doing great damage in that area.
- Shoooooooooooot: The Ducks will possibly be without Frederik Andersen. John Gibson, who has cooled down considerably from his nice start to the season, may be their only option. Gibson has 4 playoff games under his belt, so we really don't know what kind of player he is in the post-season. Time to find out. The Predators cannot get into the same mindset they did against Scott Darling last year. Test. This. Guy.
Player That Could Make The Difference
- Filip Forsberg: We saw what he can do in the playoffs last year. After finishing the regular season as cold as ice, Forsberg caught fire and scored 4 goals in the series against Chicago. Forsberg has the ability to get into the heads of opposing skaters. You have to respect the skating ability, the stick skills, the shooting, and the ass-check. Teams can't get caught guessing against this guy, because he can bring it in a number of different ways.
If the Ducks were a GoT Baddie, They'd Be
Stannis Baratheon (with Melisandre)
A truly tragic character whose delusions of power and superiority, along with his brain-washed devotion to the evil Melisandre, will most certainly lead to his downfall. While the main players in Westeros are jockeying for position, Stannis is firmly convinced he is the rightful King. And then he just starts majorly screwing things up for everyone else.
If Stannis wasn't so poorly managed, he would be a dominating force and probably a decent King. But he can't figure out what kind of man he needs to be. A decent human being with empathy and feelings? A masterful war general with respect and dignity? A dark tyrant? He could be all of these things, but he doesn't have a fundamental understanding of leadership like Ned Stark or Jon Snow. So he just relies on his emotions, which are under Melisandre's complete control.
In this scenario, Melisandre is Ryan Kesler. He makes the Ducks a truly evil team, but at the same time, he doesn't have any real power. His power comes from manipulating his linemates into making him better than he is. He agitates and inflames. He calls upon ancient, powerful, evangelistic forces for his strength, which he uses only for deceit and power. And he must be stopped.