Lighting the Lamp With Rick Ackerman
It’s been a tough eighteen years for the fans of the Nashville Predators. Starting NHL play in 1998, the Predators did not qualify for postseason play their first five seasons, and when they finally did, in 2004, they were knocked out in the first round by Detroit. After the lockout, Nashville qualified three consecutive years, only to be eliminated in the first round each time, by San Jose twice and then Detroit, in 2008.
The Preds missed the playoffs in 2009 but rebounded the following year, before suffering another opening-round loss, this time to Chicago. Nashville would advance the next two seasons to the conference semifinals, defeating Anaheim for their first series victory but losing to Vancouver in 2011. In 2012, the Preds eliminated the then-dreaded Red Wings in the first round before bowing out to Phoenix in the second round. It took Nashville three years to play again for Lord Stanley’s Cup, making the grade in 2015, only to lose in the first round to the now-dreaded Blackhawks. Last year the Preds won an opening-round series over the Ducks but fell to the Sharks in seven games in the second round.
Although Nashville finished eighth in the conference this year, the Predators shocked the hockey world by sweeping top-ranked Chicago in the opening round, giving their long-suffering fans hope that this might be the year Nashville makes it to the Conference Finals.
Nashville now has a playoff series record of 4-9, tallying 33 wins of 75 games overall in postseason play. In comparison, St. Louis is 27-40 in total series history, winning 162 of 360 games. This series marks first time the Blues and Predators have met in postseason action.
For those who look to regular season play between these two divisional rivals, Nashville won three of five games, outscoring the Blues 15 to 11. However, the losses St. Louis suffered were earlier in the season when the team was rather discombobulated and Jake Allen was not himself. The Blues won the most significant match of the regular season series with the Preds on April 2, handing them a 4-1 beatdown en route to clinching third place in the Central Division. Jake Allen made 35 saves and was selected as the second star of the game. Ironically, even with the loss, Nashville nevertheless clinched the eighth and last playoff slot on the same night.
Over the entire regular season, Nashville had a slightly better offense than the Blues (2.90 goals per game to 2.84), while St. Louis had a slightly better defense (2.63 goals against per game to 2.68). The Note had better special teams, with an eighth-ranked power play (21.3%) to the 16th-ranked Predators (18.9%), while the Blues’ third -ranked penalty kill (84.8%) was significantly better than Nashville’s 15th-ranked (80.9%). And in the for what its worth department, the Blues lost only seven games in overtime, while the Predators lost 12. The only team still in the playoffs with fewer overtime losses is the New York Rangers with six.
Of course, you can throw out the regular season statistics, as the playoffs are a whole new game, and results during the regular season are certainly not indicative of future actions in the postseason. Just ask the Blackhawks and Wild about that.
Every sportswriter and hockey analyst across North America touted Wednesday’s game one as a battle between net-minders Jake Allen and Pekka Rinne. That turned out not to be the case, however, as it was actually a battle of special teams that Nashville won with two power play goals in the second period. Of course, St. Louis had only one power play advantage during the entire game as referees Chris Rooney and Francois St. Laurent put away the whistles, not calling any penalties after assessing a slashing call to Kyle Brodziak at 11:19 of the second period, awarding the Predators a five-on-three for some 30 seconds. The Blues killed off the two-man advantage, but Filip Forsberg scored at 12:11, padding the Predators’ lead to 3-1.
The Blues fought back to tie the score in the third period on goals by Jaden Schwartz, his third of the playoffs, and Vlad Sobotka, his second, yet on what seemed to be an innocent play, Vern Fiddler slipped the puck by a sprawling Jake Allen with just under five minutes left in the game to give the Preds a 4-3 victory and home-ice advantage in the series.
If the Blues are to advance to the Conference Finals, special teams must show improvement. So far in the playoffs, the Note is a paltry one for 16 on the power play, while the club has allowed five power play goals against, shorthanded 21 times, including two five-on-threes. St. Louis has had more power plays than their opponents only once in six games, with nary a single five-on-three. In comparison, Nashville has been shorthanded only ten times in five games, allowing two power play goals against.
The Blues could use more team speed, which is why rookies Ivan Barbashev and Zach Sanford just might play tonight. If the St. Louis forwards can put more pressure on the Predators’ defensemen, they can get more shots on goal and expose Rinne’s perceived weaknesses, which include a tendency to get caught in transition on quick plays and pass- outs and get beat on bad-angle shots, especially through the five-hole.
It will take all that tonight and more to get the Blues back on an even keel, regain home-ice advantage and remind Nashville of their inglorious history of early round exits in those many ill-fated runs to the Cup.