It wasn't supposed to be the Predators getting through their first-round opponent before the Canucks, but that's the Stanley Cup playoffs for you. Harken back a week's time and you had Vancouver looking like the Presidents' Trophy winner it is. But it nearly coughed up the series, needing overtime in Game 7 to finally advance past the defending champion, but considerably weakened Blackhawks. For Nashville it was a first-round matchup with the Anaheim Ducks, arguably the hottest team entering the postseason. Never scoring fewer than three goals in any game, the Predators took care of Anaheim in Game 6, advancing past the first round for the first time in the organization's history.
Here's the breakdown.
Forwards: On paper, there's not much comparison between these two groups. Vancouver's fourth-leading scorers (Mikael Samuelsson and defenseman Christian Ehrhoff) would be tied for the team lead for Nashville in points. But if the first round is any evidence, the Predators' forwards are playing at a higher level right now. Averaging more than a goal per period in any playoff series is impressive, I don't care if a team is missing their first-string goaltender as Anaheim was in Jonas Hiller. But still, they will need Martin Erat to be fully healthy for the series. He has returned to practice since the big hit he suffered in the last series made him a spectator by the series' end. They will need him to join back up with Patric Hornqvist, David Legwand and crew. That's because when playing to its fullest potential -- that's the key here -- no team in the league can boast better talent up front than Vancouver. It's more than just the Sedin twins (gratuitous chance to throw this classic video in ) with Ryan Kesler, Alex Burrows, Samuelsson and more pitching in. Wildcard watch: Nashville's Sergei Kostitsyn had the highest shooting percentage this seasn of anybody who played more than 25 games, scoring on 24.7 percent.
Defensemen: Last offseason Vancouver's No. 1 priority was to boost the defensive corps to help Roberto Luongo come playoff time. To do so, the Canucks went out and grabbed Dan Hamhuis and Keith Ballard. It helped as Vancouver ranked first in the NHL this season in goals against. But don't dare call Nashville a slouch in this department. The Preds were nipping on the heels of Boston for third in the league at 2.32 GAA. Granted, sometimes the stats can be misleading when talking about defensemen because often times, just like penalty killing, the best defender is likely your goaltender. When talking about offensive capabilities from the blue line, each team has a man worth keeping an eye on. The aforementioned Ehrhoff leads the Canucks D corps in scoring while cannon-for-a-shot Shea Weber was two points off the team lead in scoring with 48 for Nashville. Vancouver is hoping to have Sami Salo back in the rotation after he had to sit Game 7 vs. Chicago with a leg injury. In the end, it's no contest when looking at name recognition, but that means squat. Nashville has shown it's stout in its own right in the back end and we're pretty much splitting hairs between these two.
Goalies: It's becoming an all-too familiar pain in Vancouver come playoff time. Roberto Luongo, a finalist for the Vezina this season, struggling when the brightest lights come on. The Chicago series was nightmarish for Luongo, who was pulled in the Game 5 beatdown and didn't start in Game 6. He was pressed back into action though when backup Cory Schneider had to leave in the middle of the game. Luongo was the only option for the Canucks in Game 7, which is when he looked like the world-class goalie that won Canada Olympic gold. The only blemish on his statline was a short-handed goal surrendered to the Blackhawks in the final two minutes to force overtime. If his confidence is right, there really aren't many better in the game. Very quietly on the other end of the ice is Pekka Rinne, another elite goaltender who struggled some in the first round. His struggles weren't all-too obvious, but he clearly wasn't the best he can be. Except for Game 1 when he allowed just one score, the Ducks were able to find the back of the net a few times each game. So in a way that's good news for Nashville: it was able to get past Anaheim without its best player flashing his A-game. Either way, he didn't go through the meltdown Luongo did and the subsequent drama surrounding his status as the starter.
Special teams: You want to find a disparity in the stats? Here you have it. Vancouver was the most effective team in the NHL this season on the power play -- is there a stat the Canucks weren't tops in?? -- while Nashville was ... 26th. This can be largely attributed to the difference in pure skill between the teams. With the type of players the Canucks have, when things start to break down in the power play, they have enough skill to make something happen on their own. As good of a coach as Barry Trotz is -- and he's damn good -- there's only so much he can do. If things start to fall apart, Nashville just doesn't have enough players that can make something happen with the puck by themselves. But things are on a much more level playing field when on the PK. As you'd expect with the stout defenses and goaltenders, each team placed in the top five in PK (Vancouver third, Nashville fifth). It is worth noting that Nashville does a good job of not letting other teams get their power-play unit on the ice, taking the second fewest amount of penalty minutes per game in the NHL this season.
Prediction: It is so tempting to pick Nashville here. I'm a believer in Trotz on the bench and Vancouver just seems ripe for the picking. But perhaps the Canucks exorcised some playoff demons, finally getting past the Blackhawks. I fully expect the Predators to push the Canucks to the limit, but Vancouver will live to see another round. Or perhaps I'm just too much of a wimp to go out on the limb. Either way, Canucks in seven.
-- Brian Stubits
|No. 1 Vancouver vs. No. 5 Nashville - Series tied, 0-0|
|April 28||at VAN||9 p.m.|
|April 30||at VAN||9 p.m.|
|May 3||at NSH||TBA|
|May 5||at NSH||TBA|
|* May 7||at VAN||8 p.m.|
|* May 9||at NSH||TBA|
|* May 11||at VAN||TBA|