* This was written on Thursday March 29th, so the Kings win over the Coyotes and the Predators win over the Sharks are not mentioned *
The Predators are in an enviable position in the Western Conference. They have a five point lead in the Central Division and are just a couple more wins away from clinching home ice advantage throughout the entire playoffs. As the Tampa Bay Lightning hit a rough patch the last three or four weeks, the Predators have surged to the head of the pack in Vegas as well as in the collected hockey media as favorites to win the Stanley Cup.
With just five games remaining on the regular season schedule, Nashville is looking to correct a bit of a slide of late. They’ve only earned five points in their last five games, all against playoff bound teams. Maybe they had a bit of a mental lapse after officially clinching a playoff berth? The post-game comments after the Toronto game, showed this team wasn’t real happy with their performance. Either way they have the ability to affect the playoff fortunes of several teams, namely games 79-80 in a quick trip through Florida over the Eastern weekend — but they won’t have any impact on who’s fighting for playoff positioning in the west.
While one eye has been on the Predators on-ice performance over the last week, the other has been focused on potential first round match-ups. Over at The Athletic, Dom (Polish name harder to spell than mine) has tabulated playoff probabilities all season long. Looking at the standings along with Dom’s predictions, the Predators realistically have four opponents they could face in the first round. The Minnesota Wild look comfortably safe as the #3 team in the Central and the Sharks are locked in to the #2 spot in the Pacific. The third spot in the Pacific and the two wild card spots are still up for grabs among four teams. Sorry Dallas, I’m not taking your 3% chance of making the playoffs all that seriously.
The Blues and Avalanche from the Central and the Kings and Ducks from the Pacific are fighting for the last three playoff spots. With their loss to Philadelphia on Wednesday, the Avalanche are currently on the outside looking in. They have the lowest projected chance of making the playoffs according to Dom’s model at 49%, with a predicted season point total of 95.4. The Blues, Kings and Ducks are all in the 97 point range. Based on these numbers as they stand today, the Predators most likely first round opponent is Los Angeles, but who should the Predators want to see finish as the second wild card team?
Once we know exactly who Nashville matches up with, we at On The Forecheck will offer an in-depth analysis of that team, but for now, I’ll break down the potential opponents by their strengths and weaknesses using the chart below. Then, I’ll look at how those strengths and weaknesses match up against Nashville, and which first round opponent gives the team the best chance for a quick and painless series before a presumed war against Winnipeg in the second round. Damn you playoff format!
Nathan MacKinnon and whoever is out there on the ice when he is. They’ve ridden the PDO Express*** all season. They have the 5th highest even strength shooting percentage in the league and the 4th highest PDO, which is manifesting itself in some score-adjusted scoring numbers better than league average. They do have the leagues 4th best PK though.
When Nathan MacKinnon isn’t on the ice, they are one of the bottom teams in the league in CF% with an even worse CA/60. They did get Erik Johnson back last week, so that should help a little bit, but this isn’t a strong possession team. The are the thirtieth-ranked team in even strength expected goals. It’s mostly a black hole of offense when MacKinnon is on the bench, one of the reasons he might be the Hart Trophy favorite.
It’s no secret by now, but this years Avs have been the Nathan MacKinnon show, also starring Mikko Ratanen, Gabriel Landeskog and Tyson Barrie. Colorado's Corsi charts with MacKinnon in the ice compared to when he’s off the ice are just comical.
There is some budding talent starting to bubble to the surface, but those guys haven’t yet emerged as stars. Tyson Barrie is a good offensive defensman and Erik Johnson doesn’t get the credit he deserves on defense. Both right shots should be in the Avs future plans as long as possible.
The top scorer on the roster of “guys who don’t play with MacKinnon” is Alex Kerfoot and his 39 points. So the answer is, they don’t have any, or it isn’t ready to contribute in a meaningful way just yet.
This isn’t Vezina winning Semyon Varlamov, but he has the 7th best delta save percentage and is +8.76 in GSAA, which puts him 15th in the league. He, along with a whole bunch of other Avs players, have rebounded nicely from what was a horrific season last year. So among the potential opponents Nashville could see in the first round, I’d put him somewhere in the neighborhood of Jonathan Quick. Varly has been a little bit more steady where Quick has always been on the edge of out of control.
It’s been a roller coaster ride for this team all year with some high peaks and some deep valleys. I mean, it seems fitting for a team based in the mountains right? They’ve dropped three of their last four games, which is why they’ve slipped to 9th in the west. Three of their remaining five games are against teams they are battling for playoff position, so they can probably do the most to help their own cause with some regulation wins in those games. The two other games are against Chicago and San Jose. They must beat the Blackhawks and hope in Game 81 that the Sharks are resting some players. They are on the outside looking in right now, and it will either take some more MacKinnon heroics, or someone else will have to step up to the big boy table.
Nashville is 4-0 against the Avalanche this year, outscoring them 17-8
Should Nashville want to play them?
Although this is a good story considering where they were last year, this edition of the Avs is a paper tiger. They are putting together a good team and Joe Sakic has to be given credit for the Duchene trade, but it’s going to take a few years to build this into a legitimate playoff force. Other than the sheer dominance of Nathan MacKinnon and the PDO Express, there isn’t any reason to think Nashville wouldn’t make quick work of them in a playoff series.
St. Louis Blues
You should see a common theme developing among these teams hovering on the outskirts of the playoffs, at least everyone other than the Avs. The Blues are fourth in the league in even strength expected goals allowed/60, and third in score adjusted goals allowed/60. They’ve been a pretty strong Corsi team, ranking in the top half of the league based mostly on their ability to prevent shots against. That cool blue area right in front on the net on their hockeyviz chart almost makes it seem like Ken Hitchcock never left.
Same story, different team. They just can’t score. They are twenty-eighth in even strength expected goals/60 and 24th in score adjusted goals for/60. They also have the worst power-play of any of the contending teams. Vladimir Tarasenko is getting his share of shots from the right circle, but there just isn’t any net front presence to bang home rebounds. If they aren’t able to generate any power-play juice against the Preds’ formidable penalty-kill, they won’t create enough offense at even strength to contend in the series.
Tarasenko is the biggest goal scoring threat on this team, but even he’s having a down year by his standards with just 62 points. He’s not even the team leader in points, Brayden Schenn is, who’s having a career year himself, and is showing the league he can do more than just score power-play goals, but star and Schenn have never been used together before in the same sentence (sorry Luke). Jaden Schwartz was red-hot to start the year, and has cooled off some after he returned from more than a month away due to injury. He has 55 points in 56 games, but I don’t think anyone is ready to anoint him a star either.
Alex Pietrangelo has really taken off this year. He has 52 points from the back end and plays over 25 minutes a night. He was an early season Norris favorite, but that light has dimmed mostly in what’s proving to be an awfully crowded race.
This team comes down to the Tarasenko line and Pietrangelo. They have a solid player in a guy like Colton Parayko but the rest of the team is mostly average to below average. If Nashville shuts down Tarasenko, the Blues don’t have much left in the tank.
To say Jake Allen has been struggling this year is something of an understatement. There isn’t any measurement of goaltender performance you can point to in making a case he’s been fine. He hasn’t been all year long, and outside of some Carter Hutton magic throughout the year the Blues probably aren’t even in this position. I don’t think we will see any Hutton revenge narrative in the playoffs either.
Allen has been much better as of late, winning eight of his last nine starts. He’s likely be the Game One starter at this point. Regardless, goaltending has still been a question for the Blues all season and that’s not likely to change in the final few weeks.
Around the start of March, the Blues really bottomed out, then traded Paul Stastny to the Winnipeg Jets. Since March 10th however, they are 8-1 and have stayed annoyingly close for the other teams trying to chase down the wild card spots. They maybe have the easiest stretch of games headed into the playoffs as well. They play Chicago twice, and Arizona once. The Yotes have picked it up over the last month and Antti Raanta is showing he can be a #1 goalie, but for a team that wants to make the playoffs, that’s a game the Blues have to win.
Nashville is 4-0 against St. Louis this year, outscoring them 12-4
Should Nashville want to play them?
Why not? They’ve dominated them on the year, they traded a top-six center and have the worst goaltending of the teams vying for the playoffs. They have the ability to play solid possession hockey and will surely curl up into a little ball in the defensive zone, but Jake Allen isn’t the kind of guy who can steal a series for them. They may be able to hang in there on the shot counter, but Nashville shouldn’t have any problems dispatching with them.
*** A term I give to teams with luck on their side. PDO simply adds on-ice shooting percentage and save percentage. A mark of 100 is average.
Check back for Part II, later today!