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Predators vs. Stars Series Preview: Matchup Overview

We’ve looked at the Stars’ forwards, their defenders, and their goalies. We’ve previewed their special teams. Now we’ll take a step back and look at everything together.

Take It From the Top

The Dallas Stars entered the 2018-19 season having, for a change, not won the offseason—that honor probably goes to the San Jose Sharks, who were [checks notes] undone by unexpectedly awful goaltending. That sounds familiar. What the Stars did instead was smaller-scale: they added a few pieces around the edges and they made a coaching change.

New head coach Jim Montgomery came in with a lot of great ideas. He wanted to focus on offense and play a fun, creative, attacking game, where the players tried to win instead of trying not to lose. He had a good coaching pedigree and made some great speeches.

Then the NHL season started, and as it went on the Stars’—I think—explosively talented roster ended up collapsing into a cautious shell of itself. They had some bad shooting luck along the way, which made it harder for them to dig themselves out of holes, and they have been bolstered by outstanding goaltending.

“Not Losing with Ben Bishop (and Anton Khudobin)”

I’d actually typed “stellar goaltending” before I realized that that sounded like I was making a joke. I am not making a joke. Ben Bishop has turned it up to eleven. He hasn’t had a game with a save percentage below league average (.905) since January 17th against the Los Angeles Kings.

Granted, he’s only played sixteen games since then, thanks to injuries, but the injuries make his performance more impressive. He has seven shutouts—a career best—in 45 starts this season, though three of those came back-to-back-to-back in a franchise-record-setting stretch at the beginning of March.

We place a lot of emphasis on the last ten, for whatever reason, in hockey: Bishop is 8-1-0 in his last ten games, with four shutouts and a .972 sv%. He has allowed seven goals over those ten games. Now, he also left two of them with injuries—Minnesota on March 14th and then Calgary on March 27th—and played almost exactly nine games’ worth of hockey in those minutes. Going back one more game drops his sv% to a mere .970 and brings his goals-allowed total up to nine.

Offense Wins…Hey, Where’s the Offense?

The Stars did Bishop the favor of taking care of business at the other end of the ice, but when your goalie is stopping pucks, rocks, and the incoming tide it’s a lot easier to relax and play some offense. But only some offense: the Stars scored 209 goals this season, well below league average and their lowest total in a non-lockout season since 2003-04. Even the Hitchcock Stars of 2017-18 managed 235 goals.

Some of their problem has been a near-league-worst all-situations shooting percentage of 8.3% and an even worse 5v5 shooting percentage of 6.9%, and a lot of that has been on their depth forwards. Bishop has been carrying the Stars at one end of the ice; Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov, and Jamie Benn have been carrying it at the other.

Oh, sure, nineteen-year-old rookie phenom Miro Heiskanen has been fantastic, driving offense without sacrificing defense; and John Klingberg has been his usual excellent self. Even Esa Lindell has outperformed expectations. But if three of your top six scorers are defenders—a problem that the Stars and the Predators share—that doesn’t say much about the rest of your forwards.

So, naturally, it was Benn and Seguin that the Stars’ CEO called out in a profanity-laced public tirade at the end of December. Seguin finished the season at nearly a point per game, though Benn was not nearly as successful. Even so, he was a key finisher for a team who really didn’t have many finishers at all.

Pretty much the entire Stars offense runs through the top line, Radek Faksa, and Heiskanen, with some help from Klingberg and Lindell. Mattias Janmark-Nylen has been good at even strength, and Jason Spezza has been decent on the power play, but for real, consistent impact the Stars are a one-line team.

Quality vs. Quantity

That’s not to say the Stars won’t be able to do damage to the Predators this series. Under Montgomery, they’ve focused heavily on shot quality as opposed to shot quantity, with mixed results. True, they’re getting outshot on a nightly basis—which isn’t something that has historically worked well for teams—but Bishop has played so well they can afford to let him make the saves while their forwards wait for the perfect shot.

And the perfect shot, for the Stars, has been the area right around the net. That “Threat: -1%” means that they’re actually slightly less likely to score than a perfectly average NHL team, just because of all the shots they’re not taking from lower-danger areas.

The bigger issue for the Preds is that the blue paint just so happens to be the area the Predators have had the hardest time keeping opponents away from even relative to the rest of the league:

If the Stars were going to be playing a team that’s great at netfront defense, they might have to change their strategy. As it is, it looks like the Predators are likely to give them exactly the kinds of shots they’re used to taking. Something to keep an eye on will be the Predators’ offense—the Stars are better at closing off the front of the net than the Preds are, but the Preds have been slightly better at getting to that area than the Stars have. Something is going to have to give on the attack.

I don’t mean to belittle shot quality; it matters a lot, in ways we can measure with shot locations and also in ways we can’t. One of the big components of creating successful offense is passing with pre-shot movement to draw defenders and goalie out of position. This isn’t just something we know; it’s something Montgomery has talked about wanting his players to do.

Corey Sznajder hand-tracks games in order to make information about passing and zone transitions available to people who want a better sense of how a team is doing what it’s doing.

This is not an ideal matchup for the Preds in this respect. The Stars complete more high-danger passes (passes around the goal, whether behind the net or across the slot) and allow fewer than the Predators do—this is definitely one of those places where the Stars’ strength is matching up against the Predators’ weakness.

We can expect the Predators to outshoot the Stars, but they will need to be both disciplined and creative in order to consistently get the better of the opportunities.

A Tale of Two Teams

In a lot of ways, the Predators and Stars are similar. Both teams have above-average goaltending with a tandem where either goalie can steal a game; both teams have a great top line and some less-than-impressive depth; both teams rely very heavily on their defenders for offense.

Both teams even have an x-factor, a player acquired at the trade deadline who hasn’t made much of an impression. Of course, for the Stars that was Mats Zuccarello, who was injured in his first game in green. He’s back for this series and was a good playmaker on a bad New York Rangers team; he might be able to help get some production out of their second line. The playmaker the Preds are hoping to activate is Mikael Granlund, who has been healthy but unmemorable.

For a final fun trivia question, they even both have a former Ottawa Senators center currently not living up to his salary on the second line (’sup, Jason Spezza and Kyle Turris).

And their play has bounced around this season as if magnetic repulsion is involved, where starting from a little way into January only one team was playing well at a time:

The Stars recently had a strong spike of outstandingly good play, while the Preds crashed through the floor with their worst stretch of the season. Models weighting more recent games more strongly will definitely favor the Stars some based on that, but it looks like both of them were coming back to the mean as the season ended.

And Finally, Some Predictions:

I do not have a model, but I’m going to offer my best guess as to who has the edge where this series.

  • Forwards: Nashville, weird as that is to say. Seguin has been very good and Radulov has been excellent, but comparing the raw numbers of the top lines isn’t fair when Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson missed so much time to injury, and if you look at the Stars’ depth past their top line it just hasn’t been as effective as the Preds’ depth has. Craig Smith and Nick Bonino have both outscored Faksa; Colton Sissons has the same number of points but is much better defensively.
  • Defenders: Nashville again, at least offensively. Defensively both teams are pretty forgettable.
  • Goaltending: Dallas. Normally I’d hesitate to give that firm an edge to a team with a starter with Bishop’s injury history, but the Predators don’t really seem to know how to score on Khudobin. (Bishop actually has a much worse career record against the Predators, but a lot of that seems to be from his time with the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team that has had their own struggles against the Preds.)
  • Special Teams: Dallas. Next.
  • Coaching: This is a tricky one. Jim Montgomery is new to NHL coaching but has been very successful in the NCAA; Peter Laviolette is an old hand in the business with a Cup ring, two more Stanley Cup Final appearances, and some banners. But neither team has done well this season after giving up the first goal, which is one of the only quantitative ways we have to measure a coach’s ability to adapt to circumstances. I don’t like the Preds’ defense and I don’t like the Stars’ offense. Toss-up, with a slight edge to Nashville because offense is at more of a premium in the playoffs./

The Predators went 3-2-0 in the season series against the Stars, but two of their victories came in overtime. They’re 1-2 (plus two ties) against the Stars in actual hockey played. Hopefully the record will improve this series.

Who do you have?

Preds in 4 8
Preds in 5 69
Preds in 6 179
Preds in 7 29
Stars in 7 34
Stars in 6 44
Stars in 5 4
Stars in 4 2

Statistics via hockey-reference.com and naturalstattrick.com. Data visualizations by Micah Blake McCurdy, Sean Tierney, and Corey Sznajder. Some data in the visualizations from moneypuck.com and evolving-hockey.com.