It’s a tangle between the Central Division champion Nashville Predators and the Dallas Stars, possessors of the first wild card spot in the Western Conference. Seven points separated them in the standings during the regular season and both are coming in hot, with the Stars going 5-1-1 to finish the season and the Predators 8-2-1 for their final 11.
Nashville isn’t quite the powerhouse of previous incarnations, but that can change in front of their raucous home crowd. They’ll have to come up with some goals most of all, as they finished with just 236 of them – 19th overall.
For all the Predators can’t do offensively, the Stars are worse. They scored just 209 goals this season, putting them near the bottom of the league. They made up the balance with impeccable team defence and quality goaltending and that promises to be what this series hinges on. If the Stars can’t score, they can at least keep the puck out of their own net.
Both the Stars and Predators made significant additions toward the end of the season, with Nashville grabbing Wayne Simmonds at the deadline and Dallas going with Mats Zuccarello. The latter was injured in his first game with his new team, but signs point to his return in this series.
The Predators only had one scorer above 30 goals and just three players with over 20 goals, so there aren’t many offensive powerhouses on the squad. Viktor Arvidsson leads the way with 34 goals in 58 games and injuries kept him from having the sort of season that could’ve turned heads. Filip Forsberg had 28 goals, while Craig Smith rounds out the top three with 21 goals.
After that, things taper off for the Predators and they play a balanced team game. Scoring can come from everywhere, with Nick Bonino, Colton Sissons, Ryan Johansen, and Calle Jarnkrok kicking in points. Roman Josi is indicative of an active defence, with 15 goals in 82 games for a total of 56 points. The Nashville D came up with 197 points in the regular season.
The power play is where things really bottom out for the Preds. They sat in last place for a lot of the regular season, but the man-advantage was pulled together a little toward the end of the season. They converted at 17.6 percent since March 1, which suggests a latent turnaround. They’re going to need it against Dallas’ terrific penalty kill.
Like the Predators, the Stars struggle with offence. They, too, have just three players with over 20 goals and just one above 30. Tyler Seguin leads the way with 33 goals, while Alexander Radulov has 29 and Jamie Benn has 27. Beyond this group, Dallas levels off considerably. Radek Faksa has 15 goals and the defence can find the net, but there are few surprises.
When 43 percent of your scoring comes from the top line, there’s trouble with overall depth. Leave it to Dallas ownership to call out the only players doing the scoring. There’s a lot to gain from a returning Zuccarello, however.
The Stars have a superior power play, clicking at 21 percent for 11th overall. They can play a decent systematic game when they can get set up, but there’s not a lot of vitality in their attack and the Predators should be able to contain the forwards. That suggests a standstill, which in turn translates to a low-scoring series.
In this battle of defensive attrition, the Predators have the headline-grabbers. P.K. Subban and Josi are the leaders of the pack. Their top four are among the most daunting in the NHL and for good reason. They allowed an average of 2.585 goals against per game, good for fourth overall.
Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm round out the top four and can ramp up the offensive attack by fuelling movement from their own end. This gives Nashville the ability to attack on transition, but it doesn’t always translate to goal-scoring.
Dante Fabbro is a nice addition, potentially. The Boston University product has just four games under his belt this season, but he scored a goal. He could be a big part of Nashville’s stated desire to “try out our team” in the playoffs, so look for the youngster to make a splash.
The Stars are meaner than the Predators by a hair, finishing second overall in goals against per game with 2.439. There are no real major headliners on Dallas’ blueline, at least in comparison to Nashville’s big guns, but they’ve been getting the job done.
Esa Lindell has been playing to task, skating 24:19 a game and producing in that miserly Dallas style. He’s demonstrated a knack for using his size to his advantage and should be able to push Nashville’s forwards out of position. John Klingberg is the offensive counterpart, with smooth skating and a solid point shot. The duo’s at the top of the depth chart for good reason.
19-year-old Miro Heiskanen is another clear difference-maker. The defenceman averages 23:07 a game and put together a dozen goals thanks to his puck-moving dexterity. He’s not a guy who makes a lot of mistakes in his own end. Couple him with veteran Ben Lovejoy and you’ve got a robust pairing.
Reigning Vezina-winner Pekka Rinne is obviously a quality playoff performer. He had a strong season in 2018-2019 and there’s every reason to expect he’ll come to play against the Stars. He posted a 2.43 goals against average and a .917 save percentage, about on par with his usual high standard.
Behind Rinne is Juuse Saros, who responded to an increased workload with poise and skill. The Finnish goalie made 27 starts and went 17-10-2 with three shutouts. He had a 2.62 goals against average and a .915 save percentage, plus he stepped in late in the season to give Rinne some much-needed rest in time for the playoffs. A team player.
Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin combined for the lowest goals against average in the Western Conference and they’ll be up for more of the same in the playoffs. Bishop has been the secret to Dallas’ success for most of the season and his stellar play kept his team in the running. With an amazing 1.98 goals against average and a .934 save percentage, the numbers are there for him to go all the way.
Khudobin has done his part. He put up a goals against average of 2.57 and a .923 save percentage. The 32-year-old veteran is cool under pressure and plays with unusual agility, plus he can take over as starter if need be. Like Saros, he’s a quality team player.
This will not be a run-and-gun, high-scoring affair, that’s for sure. The Predators and Stars will battle for every scrap of ice and every goal. Both teams lack upper echelon scorers and both teams play accountable hockey in their own end. Look for low-scoring games and plenty of goaltending skill. And if that ends up being what tilts the series, Dallas has to be the favourite.
With that, the Stars win this one in six games.
(Photo credit: NHL)