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Looking Ahead: Which 2nd Round Matchup Favors The Preds?

As the Preds await the winner of the Blues-Wild series, we take a look at the potential matchups for the next round.

St Louis Blues v Nashville Predators Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

As satisfying as the first round sweep of the Chicago Blackhawks may have been, the road to the Stanley Cup Finals is not over for the Nashville Predators. Now they await the winner of the Blues-Wild series. Game 5 of that series is slated for 2 p.m. today, with the Blues leading the series 3-1.

No matter which team ends up the Predators’ opponent in the next round, they will have a drastically different style of play from the Blackhawks. Both the Wild and the Blues have a more physical approach to the game, looking to play tough on the boards while battling for pucks and trying to out-defense the opponent on the way to a low scoring win.

Regardless of who the Preds play, get ready for some ugly games.

If The Preds Play The Blues

You can expect a long, tough, grind-it-out, beat-your-brains-in kind of series, where there are probably more than a handful of cuts, bruises, injuries, and shouting matches. Maybe even a few fines and suspensions handed out. But assuming that the Preds don’t completely lose their minds and are able to actually play their game against the Blues, who has the advantage in this matchup?

The Preds definitely have a puck possession edge on the Blues at 5v5. Nashville finished the regular season 5th in the league in Corsi-For percentage with a 51.35% mark, not to mention they just beat the Blackhawks in four games, mostly due to their ability to possess the puck. St. Louis on the other hand finished the regular season 15th in the league in Corsi-For at 50.2% and are getting absolutely dominated at 5v5 by the Wild in this first series—the Blues have a meager 38.9% Corsi-For percentage in four games.

So the 5v5 advantage should go to Nashville, for sure. But special teams may be a different story.

The Blues have one of the best penalty kills in the league. They finished the regular season 3rd in the league on the penalty kill at 84.8%. While they do tend to take more penalties than they should (due to their style of play), they’ve been very successful at preventing goals. The Blues found themselves shorthanded 263 times in the regular season, which ranked 7th most in the league, but only gave up 40 power play goals, which is 7th least in the league.

Here’s a look at the shot advantages for each team on the penalty kill and power play over the last 25 games, courtesy of HockeyViz:

Noted penalty killing forwards Alexander Steen and Kyle Brodziak are the usual mainstays, joining up with Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester. All those dudes are over 6’1” and pushing 220 pounds. That’s a heavy load to push around. Paul Stastny and Scottie Upshall are smaller, peskier forwards that have very active sticks.

The Preds penalty kill has been inconsistent all season and even on its good days was only an above average unit. The penalty kill advantage goes to the Blues.

Deciding which team has the power play advantage is a tougher call. The Preds have notoriously been frustrating to watch on the power play and they didn’t do much to fix that in the series against the Hawks (they went 1 for 8 on the man advantage in the series). They just can’t seem to get the puck in the zone cleanly and when they do they tend to make one too many passes.

The Preds’ power play finished the regular season with an 18.9% mark, good for 16th in the league, while the Blues finished with a 21.0% mark, good for 9th. On the surface, you’d think the Blues have the advantage, until you see that the Blues finished the regular season at a 12.5% rate (four goals in their last 32 power play chances) and have only one power play goal in 11 chances against the Wild in the series. They also traded their second leading power play goal scorer, Kevin Shattenkirk, to the Capitals.

The Preds have been marginally better at generating shot attempts while on the power play over their last 25 games, so let’s give them a slight advantage in that area. Though remember, they would be facing that tough Blues penalty kill, so it might not be much of an advantage.

If The Preds Play The Wild

It would be a miracle comeback for the Wild to overcome an 0-3 series deficit, but it has happened. Four teams have come back from down 0-3, most recently when the Kings did it in 2014 on their way to a Stanley Cup.

While it does seem unlikely that the Preds will face the Wild, let’s take a quick look at the matchup anyway. You never know.

The Wild honestly make no sense at all. As a team they had one of the best offenses in the league for most of the season, but largely stunk at 5v5. They finished the season 20th in the league at 5v5 Corsi-For with a 49.3% mark and were rarely above average in that category all season.

Courtesy of Corsica Hockey

The Stars and Panthers had better 5v5 play than that and didn’t make the playoffs, but the Wild scored the 2nd most goals in the league and almost won the Central. Ironically, the Wild were much better at 5v5 towards the end of the year, right in the middle of their late season tumble.

Then they go out and completely dominate the Blues at 5v5 in four games, but lose the first three games and are now staring at a 1-3 series deficit. Flipping the script on how they built so many wins during the regular season didn’t lead to a division win and didn’t lead to a series advantage against the Blues.

Honestly, I am not sure what to think about this Wild team in terms of puck possession. They are a decent 5v5 team, I suppose, but I’m just not sure how much it matters. Because they rely on Devan Dubnyk and their defense to protect leads, they really don’t need to possess the puck as much as you would think. But I also don’t think that translates to postseason success.

So puck possession doesn’t matter? Except for when it does? I don’t know. Advantage: Predators.

It’s important to point out that Devan Dubnyk took a big step back in the last two months of the season. In his last 17 games, he managed only an .895 save percentage, allowing 44 goals. The Wild’s collapse late in the season had more to do with the regression of their best player rather than a change in playing style. For what it’s worth, he’s returned to his regular form in the postseason so far, allowing only six goals in four games and putting up a .943 save percentage.

As far as special teams, I think we give the edge to the Wild. They rank 9th on the power play and 8th on the penalty kill and have been fairly consistent in both areas all season. They had the 7th least penalty minutes in the league during the regular season and have killed off 10 of 11 Blues power plays in four games. They have a 21.0% mark on the power play, with guys like Mikko Koivu and Eric Staal spreading the puck around and guys like Nino Niederreiter and Mikael Granlund scoring regularly.

When it comes to special teams, consistency is as important as anything, so give the Wild the advantage there.

Favorable Matchup?

Honestly—and I don’t think I’m being naive here—the Preds can matchup with just about anyone. Speed is the most important thing you can have in the playoffs and the Preds have a ton of it. They also have the hottest goaltender in the playoffs and some size and physical presence where it counts. And puck-skills, play-making, shooting? Yeah, they’ve got that too.

There really isn’t a team in the league that I think the Preds don’t match up well against. When you have such a dynamic team, you can beat anyone, so long as you adjust to your opponent’s style and game strategy.

Having said that, I like the matchup with the Blues slightly more than the Wild, mostly because of consistency. The Blues have been playing live-on-the-edge hockey recently with their play at even strength and with their reliance on Jake Allen to steal games. The Blues, much like the Preds, were not a very consistent team in the regular season, though they did turn it on late. Unlike the Preds, however, they haven’t exactly dominated in the postseason, though they do have a 3-1 series lead.

I also don’t like the prospects of having to break through Devan Dubnyk in the postseason especially knowing he has a .929 save percentage in 19 games against the Predators in his career. Allen’s numbers are more modest, a .917 save percentage in 10 games against the Preds.

Most importantly, I think that the speed of the Predators could cause nightmares for the Blues. Viktor Arvidsson, Kevin Fiala, Craig Smith (if healthy), Harry Zolnierczyk, Pontus Aberg, Roman Josi, P.K. Subban, Ryan Ellis—all of these guys have speed that can beat you. The Blues are a slower more physical team that wants to hit their way into the next round. When a team like the Blues tries to hit you, you skate by them with the puck and score on their goalie, and the Preds have shown they can do that in the playoffs so far.