The St. Louis Blues will meet the Nashville Predators in the second round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs and both teams could be considered underdogs. After all, both teams upset their top-seeded opponents in the first round. And both teams weren’t supposed to win, let alone with relative ease.
The Predators took out the Chicago Blackhawks in a sweep, holding their opponents to just three goals in the entire series. And the Blues handled the Minnesota Wild after selling at the trade deadline and took just five games to do so, snagging the win largely on the strength of goalie Jake Allen.
The Blues and Predators met five times in the 2016-2017 regular season, with Nashville taking the edge 3-2-0. That may not mean anything in the post-season, but there is some insight available as to how the two clubs match up.
For one, the Nashville defence is young and mobile. They were able to stifle the Blackhawks in the first round and can play plenty of minutes. That will come in handy against the Blues, who allows plenty of shots against but weathered the storm thanks to stellar goaltending. Funnily enough, Predators goalie Pekka Rinne put up better statistics against the Wild.
St. Louis didn’t exactly fill the net against the Wild in the first round, plus the averaged being outshot by nearly 10 per game. Jaden Schwartz and Alexander Steen were the only two forwards to have two goals or more in the series. 24-year-old Schwartz had a total of five points against Minnesota and registered 15 shots on goal, while Steen had four points and eight shots.
Vladimir Tarasenko had three points against the Wild, including a goal and two assists. He put in 22:40 of ice time in Game One and topped out close to 22 minutes in Game Four, while he scored his lone goal in Game Five. The 25-year-old Russian is still one of St. Louis’ leading offensive threats, but he’ll have to work through a tight Predators defence to find space.
The same goes for Vladimir Sobotka, who also had three points for the Blues in the first round. He only registered four shots on goal and was almost a question mark for his team after a KHL run with Avangard Omsk, but St. Louis likes his versatility and energy. Also, Paul Stastny is back in the mix after missing most of the Minnesota series with a foot injury. That should give the Blues a better shot in the faceoff circle.
Colton Sissons, Kevin Fiala, Viktor Arvidsson, and Filip Forsberg all had two goals apiece for the Predators against the Blackhawks. 22-year-old Forsberg had a total of five points in the first round and registered a dozen shots on goal. Half of those shots came in Game Three, when he put in over 25 minutes of ice time.
Centre Ryan Johansen led the Nashville forwards in points with six against Chicago. His goal and five assists have solidified him as the top pivot on the team, a role he’s managed to relish since arriving on the Predators from a wishy-washy tenure in Columbus.
24-year-old Swedish forward Arvidsson had four points in the first round and was a plus-8 against Chicago, which made him one of the most potent offensive threats in the series. He had 11 shots on goal. Sissons was also in the thick of it, with a three-point performance against the Blackhawks and a total of nine shots on target.
The Blues allowed a lot of shots on goal in the first round and didn’t exactly muster much offence against the Wild, averaging just 26.8 shots per game and finishing lowest among all playoff teams in most puck possession stats. They spent a lot of time chasing the puck.
Alex Pietrangelo floated around a half hour of ice time against Minnesota and had an assist to go with 14 shots on goal, which made him more offensively active than many St. Louis forwards. The Blues would like to activate him more on the power play, which would help their 6.7 percent conversion rate and generate some much-needed chances.
Jay Bouwmeester averaged almost 26 minutes against the Wild and stuck to his shutdown game, registering just three shots on goal. 23-year-old Colton Parayko had two points against Minnesota, averaging 24:44 of ice time in the series, and Joel Edmundson had two goals. The 23-year-old from Brandon averaged 22:11 of ice time and had five shots on goal.
Nashville’s defence was firing on all cylinders, containing the Blackhawks and limiting them to just three goals. They were collectively unstoppable, clearing the net in front of Rinne and playing excellent transition hockey. Chicago only scored one even-strength goal in the entire series.
Roman Josi averaged 27:14 against the Blackhawks and posted three points, including two goals. He was instrumental in keeping the Nashville defence calm, playing a well-rounded game in three zones and clocking 13 shots on goal.
P.K. Subban had two assists against Chicago and averaged 25:18 of ice time. He’s bought into the Nashville system and can play a brand of shutdown hockey that typifies his explosiveness, plus he’s useful on the power play. The Predators will go with what works, which means the likelihood of a Subban rush up ice is minimal unless absolutely necessary.
26-year-old Ryan Ellis had four points against Chicago and averaged 25:49 of ice time a game, with 10 shots on goal. He is one of the Predators’ most mobile threats, plus he can move the puck out of trouble quickly. 26-year-old old Mattias Ekholm is a nice complement, with an average of 25:10 of ice time per game and puck-moving ability to boot.
For the Blues, it’s all about Allen. Literally. The 26-year-old goalie was 4-1 against the Wild and faced a whopping 182 shots in the first round, allowing just eight goals. He posted a goals against average of 1.47 and a save percentage of .956, well ahead of his career playoff averages.
St. Louis has done little to limit shot chances against Allen and have put most of their eggs in his basket, but Carter Hutton is still the backup plan. The 31-year-old has seen just three shots on goal in his post-season history and he allowed one goal on those chances, which is not terrific.
Rinne was 4-0 against the Blackhawks and faced just 126 shots, allowing three goals. He posted a goals against average of 0.70 and a save percentage of .976, with two shutouts in the opening round. He was arguably a better goalie than Allen, although he didn’t see as many shots and had better defensive coverage.
That means that Nashville backup Juuse Saros won’t be hung out to dry if something happens to Rinne. The 22-year-old netminder played in 21 games during the regular season, with a .923 save percentage and a 2.35 goals against average.
Who Will Win
The Predators are the better team. They’ve got the defensive edge and can hold the Blues away from any serious offensive chances, plus they can score when they need to. St. Louis is betting a little too much on Allen at this point to survive another round and one could argue they got lucky against the Wild.
But luck can account for a lot in the post-season and the Blues could pull it together. Tarasenko could find his offensive gear and St. Louis could rally to put the puck in the net. Maybe.
My call: Nashville in five.