While the rest of the NHL was making preparations for the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs (or in the case of the Lightning and the Islanders, already getting their series underway), the Nashville Predators were finishing off their rally from a 3-2 series deficit to knock out the favored Anaheim Ducks in seven games in their first round series. Their reward? Another series on the West Coast, as they’ll begin the second round in San Jose against the Sharks on Friday night, just two days after dispatching the Ducks. The Sharks will have had a week off in between games, as they took care of the rival Los Angeles Kings in just five games in their opening round series, looking nothing like Sharks teams of the past that have been postseason disappointments. This is only the third time that Nashville has ever been to the second round of the playoffs, and they’ve never advanced to the conference finals. After missing the playoffs last year for the first time since 2003, San Jose will be looking to return to the conference finals for the first time since 2011, when they lost to the Vancouver Canucks in five games. This series will also mark the third time the Sharks and Predators have tangled in the postseason, as they last met in the first round in both 2006 and 2007, with San Jose winning both of those series in five games each.
HOW THEY GOT HERE
Nashville: By rallying from a 3-2 series deficit to beat the Ducks on the road in Game 7 by a 2-1 score. It was the fourth straight year that Anaheim has lost a Game 7 at home after blowing a 3-2 series lead, and it was also the first time that Nashville had even played in a Game 7 in their franchise’s history. Predators goalie Pekka Rinne, who had an up-and-down season, came up huge for Nashville over the final two games of the series, allowing just two goals on 64 shots in that time, including a 36-save performance in Game 7. Nashville’s defense may have given up a lot of shots, but they didn’t give up a ton of Grade-A chances in Game 7.
San Jose: In a series that was expected by many (including yours truly) to be a seven-game heavyweight brawl, the underdog Sharks surprised a lot of people (including yours truly) by eliminating the rival Kings in five games, exorcising some ghosts of recent playoffs past. Before the playoffs began, the constant narrative was whether or not San Jose had learned anything from the last time they were in the playoffs. That 2014 first round series against the Kings, in which they became only the fourth team in league history to blow a 3-0 series lead and lose in seven games, had been hanging like a dark cloud over this franchise for two years. Beating L.A. in relatively short order went a long way towards quieting their critics. Perhaps being an underdog is what the Sharks needed after so many years of coming up short in the playoffs.
KEYS TO THE SERIES
Secondary Scoring: Both of these teams were led by their star players in the opening round of the playoffs, although San Jose was much more prolific at putting the puck in the net, scoring 16 goals in five games compared to Nashville’s 14 in seven games. The Sharks were led by Joe Pavelski’s five goals, defenseman Brent Burns’s eight points (2 goals, 6 assists), and Logan Couture’s 5 assists (and one goal), while also getting contributions from Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton. Thornton only had three points, but played a solid all-around game and continued his stellar play from the regular season in which he was considered a dark horse candidate for the Hart Trophy. Meanwhile, Nashville was led in points by Shea Weber and Colin Wilson, who each had two goals and five assists in the opening round, while the team’s other top guns, Filip Forsberg, James Neal, Roman Josi, and Ryan Johansen, had three points each against Anaheim. With each team keying on the others’ top players, whoever can get scoring from either their depth players or skill players that didn’t have much offensive production in the opening round will have a huge leg up in this series. For San Jose, any offense from the likes of Joel Ward, Tomas Hertl, or Joonas Donskoi (who scored both of his goals in Game 5’s series-clinching win over L.A.), would go a long way towards helping out the likes of Pavelski, Thornton, Couture, and Burns. In Nashville, any goal-scoring will be needed, but if they could get contributions from Craig Smith, Mike Fisher, or Mike Ribeiro, it would be a huge boost for the Predators.
The Rest/Fatigue Factor: As mentioned before, the Sharks will host Game 1 of this series exactly one week after ousting the Kings in the opening round. The Predators will be staying out in California for the start of this series, which begins only two days after playing the first Game 7 in team history and coming out on top in a tough series against a physical Anaheim Ducks team. As we’ve seen in the playoffs this year with the Lightning and the Islanders, sometimes having too much rest after a series isn’t always a good thing. However, sometimes having a long layoff between series can help out in the long run. It will be interesting to see if the Preds will be too worn out after a seven-game showdown with the Ducks, or if they ride that momentum to an early series lead in San Jose.
Superstar Defensemen: Burns has been a very good player for San Jose, but this season, he made the leap to superstardom as a legitimate Norris Trophy candidate. Burns led all NHL defenseman with 27 goals and was second among all blue-liners with 75 ponts, and led the Sharks in points in the opening round. He may not be a stalwart on the defensive end of the ice, but he doesn’t have to be due to his high offensive production and his penchant for shooting the puck often, as he was second in the league behind Alex Ovechkin with an astounding 353 shots on goal. The next highest defenseman on the list was Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson, who fired 248 shots on net. Burns has also been bolstered by having the defensively responsible Paul Martin as his defense partner. On the other side, Nashville has been lauded for having arguably the most talented defensive corps in the NHL, led by Weber and Josi. Weber was tied for the team lead in scoring in Round 1, and even though he’s now 30-years-old, he’s still a key player for the Predators on the back end. Over the last couple of years, Josi has turned into a star in his own right, as he led the team in assists during the regular season with 47, and was second in points with 61. However, he only has three assists so far in the playoffs, so the offensively-challenged Predators could use some more contributions from him.
SERIES OUTLOOK: The Predators enter this series as underdog, although they just might be able to ride the momentum of their first-ever Game 7 win into this series. However, a big load has been lifted off the shoulders of San Jose after exorcising the memories of 2014’s monumental collapse. Although they’ll be favorites in this particular series, they don’t carry the same pressure of being Stanley Cup contenders that they have in the past. Nashville has an excellent defensive corps good goaltending, but they simply don’t score enough goals. San Jose has the goaltending with Martin Jones to go along with a Burns-led defensive corps and a big, skilled forward group that can score and punish the opposition with their forecheck, and I expect their playoff run to continue.
PREDICTION: Sharks in 5
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