As the Nashville Predators head into their playoff series with the Carolina Hurricanes, pretty much the entire hockey world is favoring the Hurricanes to win. There’s a lot for Hurricanes fans to be excited about right now, with talented young players at all three positions. Teuvo Teräväinen is back from injury and playing just as well as before, while Alex Nedeljkovic is the talented young goalie they’ve been hoping for since Cam Ward.
What’s more, the Hurricanes went 6-0 against the Predators this season in games that had meaning for the Hurricanes themselves, with the Preds’ lone two victories coming in games once the Canes had clinched the division and secured themself home ice up through at least through what I’m going to call the Stanley Cup Semifinals. The only two teams in the league with a better record both play in the West Division. During those six games, the Predators were outscored 23-9, scoring 1-2 goals a game and allowing 3-5 (mostly 4) with almost clockwork regularity.
What’s more, a full ten of the Preds’ 31 wins this season came after regulation. They were 10-2 once hockey stopped and silliness began, going undefeated in the shootout (skills competition) and 5-2 in overtime (played three-on-three, like hockey isn’t). The league average win percentage after regulation is, obviously, 50%; if the Preds had had that, the Dallas Stars would be the ones lining up for this series—especially since the Stars all by themselves lost five of those ten Preds OT/SO wins.
I read through a lot of “here’s who we’re predicting to win this series!” articles from the staffs of multiple hockey sites while collecting links this weekend, and I have not found a single of these experts predicting the Preds will manage the upset win. If the Preds pull this off, it will be a huge bracket-buster—and unlike the time the Predators went on a Cinderella run to the Stanley Cup Final, everyone actually likes the Hurricanes.
It isn’t just that everyone actually likes the Canes, though—they’re a really good team. They didn’t luck into the division championship. They earned it, with top-notch goaltending; fast, aggressive, committed play; incredible special teams; and the finishing touch they’d lacked for over a decade to cap off the plays they were making.
I want the Predators to win this series, but I’m not going to lie to you: it will be very hard.
The Preds have had a great record over the last two months, going 20-7-1 since March 15th to propel themselves from lottery territory into playoff position. Why March 15th? Because that’s when they started winning. Over that same stretch of time, the Hurricanes were 16-6-7, which is still good but not great. That’s one of the factors that some people have pointed to as a potential complication for the series.
Unfortunately, a lot of that comes down purely to the play of Juuse Saros. If you look at the dataviz above, in the third of the four mini-vizzes you’ll see the red-shaded area suddenly turning to a black-shaded area as the red line (goals allowed per shot on goal) drops sharply below the black line (goals scored per shot on goal). The Predators, by and large, simply stopped allowing goals, and it’s pretty hard not to win a hockey game when the other team can’t score on you.
It’s tempting to analyze the improvements as John Hynes finally being able to implement his own system—instead of the Laviolette-era “shoot from the point and hope for luck”—as injuries forced changes to the lineup. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that’s the case.
If you squint at the middle of the above dataviz, you can see the Preds (in gold) just under the league-average label. They’ve actually managed to generate fewer expected goals, and allow more expected goals, over the last half-season; they’re trending the wrong way. A lot of this could be simply because of the injuries forcing them to play worse players instead of a coaching change, but the improvement in their goal-scoring still shouldn’t be relied on.
Which means, again, it comes down to Juuse Saros. A great goalie can steal a series, but both Nedeljkovic and Petr Mrázek are no slouches themselves. Saros’s struggles on the penalty kill are another concern—the team will need to stop taking penalties and try not to draw them (thanks, Tim Peel, for your lesson about game management!).
The open question remains: what will we see from the Predators’ skaters?
In the 2017 playoff run, Ryan Johansen found an extra gear, controlling the ice in the Preds’ galvanizing upset of the Chicago Blackhawks. That’s what they’re paying him—and Matt Duchene—eight million dollars a year to do. If Johansen can be that kind of a difference-maker again, or if Duchene can make a positive impact, the Predators are in a much better position than it looks like they are right now.
As it is, Roman Josi, despite missing eight games, led the team in points for the second season in a row. He, Mattias Ekholm, and Ryan Ellis aren’t getting any younger, but teams have gone on deep runs with older defenders making up their core before now. Ekholm has struggled this season, but he’s still an enormously talented player. Will we see the old Ekholm, or the new one?
The Hurricanes’ Road to Victory:
Just play like they’ve been playing all season. They don’t really have to do anything fancy: they’re a good team and they’ve had the Preds’ number. Either one might be bad; the combination is brutal.
The Predators’ Road to Victory:
Get great play from Juuse Saros, keep the series 5v5 as much as possible, and have at least one of the skaters step up in a big way. Both teams will need puck luck, but the concern is bigger for the Predators, since the Canes make a lot more of their own luck than the Preds do.
Still, the series isn’t over until the fourth loss, and the Preds have the personnel to surprise. Go Preds.