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Nashville Predators vs. San Jose Sharks: Playoff Preview?

The Sharks are back in Bridgestone Arena for the first time since Viktor Arvidsson made everyone go ape.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-San Jose Sharks at Nashville Predators Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The Predators take on the Sharks tonight, looking to finish off a three game home stand with three straight wins. The Preds beat the Coyotes 3-1 on Monday and the Flames 3-1 on Thursday. Now they take on the Pacific Division leading Sharks.

Earlier this week, we broke down the Sharks as part of a playoff preview. Check it out here. As of yesterday, there’s a 12.3% chance that the Preds meet these Sharks in the first round of the playoffs. That might not seem like a lot, but it’s one of the most likely playoff scenarios for the Preds at this point, behind the Blackhawks and the Wild.

The San Jose Sharks

How good has Brent Burns been this year?

Well, for starters, his 27 goals leads all NHL defensemen and by a wide margin. The next closest is Shea Weber with 16. Plus, he leads all NHL defensemen in points with 70, though that margin is narrower. Erik Karlsson has 67 points.

Burns’ excellence goes beyond how he compares to other blueliners, though. He has been among the league leaders in points (and goals) nearly all season. He currently sits 9th in the league among all skaters in points and has basically been in the top 5-10 all season long.

But it’s the goal scoring that is truly remarkable. How Burns is generating all these goals is pretty amazing. Last season, Karlsson finished 5th among all NHL skaters in points with 82, but only had 16 goals to show for it. Burns’ 27 goals is already the highest goal total for a defensemen since Mike Green had 31 for the Capitals back in 2008-09—and Burns might even pass that number. He’s shooting 9.4% on the season, so you figure with another 40 shots or so, he should be right there.

In fact, in terms of goal-scoring, Burns has been one of the best offensive defensemen in decades. He has a long way to go to reach Bobby Orr’s epic run back in the 70’s, where he was putting up 30-40 goals every year, or Paul Coffey’s best years in the 80’s, where he was putting up 40+ goals. But he’s been pretty amazing.

The Sharks have not been playing as well recently—they’ve lost seven of their last 11 games, including five straight losses, and also have officially lost their Pacific Division lead—but with Burns back there lighting up the scoreboard, and the usual cast of characters clogging up the middle, they are a dangerous team.

The Nashville Predators

On Thursday night, the Predators found themselves in the penalty box early and often. They were called for five penalties—some of which were questionable—and had to fight off a dangerous Flames power play. The Preds succeeded. The Flames went 0-for-5 on the man advantage.

Head Coach Peter Laviolette was asked about the penalty kill unit after the game. Here’s what he had to say:

“It was really good, they were good in the zone... Calgary’s got a talented group. They were constantly attacking from the sides. I thought we did a good job with sticks protecting the front of the net... That was good for the penalty kill, you want to be ready to kill all penalties, we had to kill too many tonight but they did the job.”

It was only the third time all season that the Preds committed at least five penalties in a game while not allowing a power play goal. Pretty solid performance.

The problem is that the Preds penalty kill is still not quite up to snuff. They’ve been playing well recently—they’ve only allowed two power play goals in their last 16 times shorthanded—but overall that unit has been below average.

Here’s a look at how the Preds penalty kill unit ranks in certain key metrics at this point in the season (red = below avg, green = above avg)

All stats from Corsica Hockey

Even if we are being generous and consider the expected goals rate per sixty minutes as being “above average” at 14th in the league, this is not something to be happy about. For the most part, this unit is allowing way too many quality shot attempts and the goalie behind them isn’t stopping pucks well enough.

Laviolette mentioned that the team did a good job getting sticks in front of pucks, which is good to see. Blocked shots are good, especially on the penalty kill. And I’m not talking about Greg Zanon lay-down-on-the-ice-and-cover-your-face blocked shots. I mean the effective blocked shot, where you actually use your stick to deflect the puck away and yet are still able to skate and recover if the shooter opts to pass. That’s what I want to see.

Last year I wrote a piece on the penalty kill’s role in playoff success. There is growing data that shows a good (or improved, really) penalty kill in the playoffs can lead to success. Most Stanley Cup winners find a way to tighten up their penalty kill units in the playoffs.

If the Predators fancy themselves contenders, they had better find a way to improve that unit. Going against the Sharks power play tonight, which has the 6th least power play goals in the league, should be good practice.

Reasons To Watch

  • Pekka Rinne has been playing great, but I kind of want to see Juuse Saros tonight. More because I want to make sure he looks ok going into the playoffs. I’m more than happy with Pekka Prime leading the way into the playoffs, but we need a capable backup. Saros’ confidence needs to be at an all-time high going into mid April.
  • Ryan Ellis, the Preds top goal-scoring defenseman, is a reason you should watch. He is amazing.
  • I mentioned this on Twitter, but watch James Neal play some defense tonight. He never gets the credit he deserves for his defensive play. He works as hard if not harder at the defensive end of the ice and almost always makes a play that prevents a dangerous opportunity for the other team.
  • It’s time P.K. Subban had another moment, isn’t it? Yeah, it’s time.

The Important Details

7:00 PM puck drop at Bridgestone Arena. TV: FS-TN, Radio: 102.5 The Game