The Nashville Predators (41-29-12) will face the St. Louis Blues (46-29-7) in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. This match-up is a compelling one for a ton of reasons; both teams under-performed at different times in the regular season and saw the possibility of a missed postseason flash before their collective eyes before righting the ship. Both clubs fought tooth-and-nail for the third spot in the Central, and both teams are smaller markets looking to etch out a name for themselves after surprising series wins against established Western Conference teams. Not many pundits had Edmonton, Anaheim, St.Louis and Nashville moving on to the second round. We're in uncharted waters. The path is cleared of the usual suspects in the west, and the stage is set for a new power house to take control.
Both Nashville and St. Louis have endured nasty regular season slumps and goaltending woes. Jake Allen famously lost his marbles around the All-Star break, and during Rinne's struggles, some elements of the Predators fanbase were calling for Juuse Saros to swipe the starting gig from Pekka. In any case, Peter Laviolette has the Predators firing on all cylinders in the postseason, and they have been both defensively responsible and shot-focused, registering 49 shots against the Blackhawks in Game 3. If the Blues can't find offense early, this could turn into another "Let's see if Jake Allen can do everything by himself" series.
1. How badly is Alexander Steen hurt?
Jeremy Rutherford recently pointed out on Twitter that Steen hasn't practiced in two weeks and that he is likely playing with a serious injury. How long can Steen keep playing through the pain? Can the depth at forward absorb the loss of Steen if the injury worsens?
2. Nashville's Sleepers
While the Predators have elite threats in Subban, Johansen, and Forsberg, Peter Laviolette has been able to create offense all throughout his lineup. Viktor Arvidsson could be one of the most underrated forwards in the league, quietly picking up 31 goals and 30 assists this season. Wilson, Jarnkrok, and Fisher all cracked the 30 point mark, and even Colton Sissons (2g, 2a in 4 GP in the first round) can kick in a point or two when it counts.
3. Face-off Circle
St. Louis beating Minnesota in five games is a hell of an achievement, especially when you consider they barely won any face-offs. Paul Stastny returning in game five helped move the needle a bit, but if the Blues don't want to get dominated in the puck possession battle, the results in the circle will have to improve.
4. Tarasenko’s Coverage
Who drew the short straw in the Predators locker room? Looks like it’s going to be Roman Josi:
“This will be interesting to watch unfold because the first four times the Predators and Blues met this season Ken Hitchcock was calling the shots in St. Louis. Mike Yeo only directed matchups in the final regular season meeting on April 2. On home ice, Yeo certainly didn’t do anything to steer Tarasenko away from Peter Laviolette’s preferred match against Josi. Those two went mano a mano for 7:51 and the shot attempts were largely split, with Josi’s side controlling nine of 17, including Tarasenko's goal in the first five minutes. Tarasenko was held to one goal and two assists in the six-game victory over Minnesota, seeing a healthy dose of Ryan Suter(40:10) and Jared Spurgeon (37:34). Josi will do his best to even out the point battle. And since the Blues were the only Central Division opponent Josi didn’t register a point against this year, he’s probably due to get on the scoreboard at least once in the series.” [TSN]
5. Escaping the trap
Nashville has an obscene 0.75 GAA through 4 games. How did they pull this off against the Blackhawks? A 1-3-1, of course! Patrick Kane even bitched about it to the press:
“The Blackhawks became flustered with all that neutral zone congestion the Predators threw into their path. Technically it is a 1-3-1 defensive scheme, with one forechecker up and the three skaters lined up to take away passing lanes and close in on puck rushers. Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville termed this a "Red Rover" defense in meetings, hearkening back to the childhood game where we tried to channel our Inner Jim Brown and plow through the human chain. "A team like that, you kind of hope they don't win," Blackhawks winger Patrick Kane complained to Chicago reporters. "I don't know if that's necessarily the best way to watch hockey games." But it worked for Nashville and now the Blues must find ways to beat the traffic and carry or place the puck into the offensive zone. [Post-Dispatch]
St. Louis relied heavily on Jake Allen throughout their five game series with the Minnesota Wild. Mike Yeo’s slot clogging, keep-all-the-shots-to-the-perimeter game plan isn't going to change all that much against Nashville. That said, St. Louis took far too many penalties against the Wild, and it was a miracle these undisciplined mistakes didn't come back to bite the Blues, but special teams might be the only area in which the Blues have a distinct advantage over the Predators. St. Louis had far better penalty kill and power-play numbers through the regular season. P.K Subban, James Neal, and Filip Forsberg are potent power play threats, so expect Piertrangelo to have his hands full. Secondary scoring came in handy for the Blues during the first round. Magnus drove the final dagger in game five, but Joel Edmondson picked up an OT winner, and so did new-comer Vladimir Sobotka. A diversified attack is all well and good, but Yeo will want to squeeze as much offense out of his biggest guns in Tarasenko and Stastny.
Puck drops on Wednesday in St. Louis at 7:00PM Central, and you can view the rest of the series schedule here.