The Nashville Predators entered the playoffs as the likely Stanley Cup favorites.
There wasn’t really much of a squabble about it, either, which is odd, because there are a number of teams at least in the ballpark in terms of what these guys bring to the table at just about every position.
One of the teams in that ballpark is the divisional rival Winnipeg Jets, and they too look really solid in most aspects of the game, but you might say they’re a hair worse than the Predators on paper, and that would be fair enough. Boston and Tampa, maybe even Pittsburgh at peak operational efficiency, are also in that area.
But in the Central Division, things could get very interesting in a hurry. Both Winnipeg and Nashville look to close out their series tonight in the fifth games, but the way in which they’ve stretched their leads to 3-1 are worth examining because of what it might mean starting next week (assuming both end their opponents’ seasons before then).
Both teams have been dominant in underlying numbers despite the fact they’ve led for the majority of their games. Both teams are stacked with talent at every position. But both teams have also had shaky moments, and you’d have to say that problem is particularly true of the Predators, who at times seem to struggle against a fairly not-good Avalanche team.
The good news for Nashville, of course, is that Erik Johnson and Semyon Varlamov are out, so even their occasional so-so play isn’t that big of a deal; they can skill their way out of it, and indeed they have to this point (that Forsberg goal from Wednesday night? Oh buddy.) but there are some real procedural issues here they have to sort out.
Again, the Preds are dominating in the shot attempts department, generating the third-most in these playoffs per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 and allowing the sixth-fewest. Getting those shots on goal has been a bit of an issue, but not a huge one. Offensively, they’re fine and often great.
The problem is that they’re giving up a decent amount of scoring chances, and that a good chunk of those chances are high-danger. You can say that it’s due in part to the fact they’ve been leading for most of the series, and you’d be right to some extent, but when a team like Colorado is getting this many high-danger chances, it’s an issue, especially because — and stop me if you’ve heard this before — Pekka Rinne hasn’t been great.
Right now we’re obviously talking about four games and it’s a small sample and the team isn’t helping his case as much as it did in the regular season. But even leaving aside his stellar regular-season performance (he’s going to win the Vezina and he absolutely should), given the kinds of shots he’s faced he should be right around the league average in the low .920s at 5-on-5. Instead, he’s at .893. Mathematically, a league-average goaltender would have allowed more than two fewer goals than Rinne has to this point in the series, and it’s mostly because he can’t stop anything in close right now. His high- and medium-danger save percentages are way off from what they were in the regular season.
(Again, I’m willing to chalk this up to a small sample, especially because the Avs are basically relying on their top line to do all the heavy lifting, as expected. Nathan MacKinnon has been on the ice for eight of them.)
If you’re the Preds, you can just outscore the Avalanche 4-3 pretty reliably. Nashville has 16 goals in the series to Colorado’s 13 and even acknowledging that they haven’t been that good defensively, that feels about right for as dangerous as they’ve been in attack.
On some level, then, you just chalk it up to “It’s hard to stop MacKinnon from scoring” but if your likely next opponent features Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler, Nik Ehlers, Mark Schifele and so on, you gotta tighten up your defense.
Because that’s the other thing here: The Jets look very, very good against a Wild team that’s better than Colorado even with all the injuries. Winnipeg isn’t simply up 3-1, they’re up 3-1 in a way that’s kind of ugly. They’ve led or been tied for the vast majority of the series and their underlying numbers are all in the 60s. They’ve scored the lion’s share of the goals over four games with one of the lowest 5-on-5 shooting percentages in the postseason. If anything, it’s fair to say Minnesota got a little lucky with the one win.
Unlike Rinne, Connor Hellebuyck’s save percentage is suffering because he had one terrible game (the 6-2 loss, obviously) but has otherwise been a wall, conceding just three goals in three games. Here, too, things can get sliced a little thin, because to discount one bad game out of four is to throw out 25 percent of his minutes, give or take. But where Rinne has struggled in a good chunk of the games, Hellebuyck really struggled in just the one, so I don’t know how that plays out.
Especially because, well, despite being a good team, the Wild certainly aren’t on the level of Nashville, especially offensively, and if it ends up being a slugfest with neither team being able to do much to stop the other from scoring, the series could end up being a coin flip, especially since both are quite healthy at the moment.
It’s important to keep in mind that Nashville is dominating the Avs and been a bit unlucky, which may or may not be a goaltending issue and is certainly a function of MacKinnon having an MVP-type season. But Winnipeg is dominating the Wild even more heavily. They have a 61.5 percent expected-goals edge, versus “just” 56.5 percent for Nashville.
Put simply, the fact that Nashville has struggled slightly more with a borderline playoff team (albeit for clear, understandable reasons) relative to what Winnipeg has done against a legitimate playoff team is something to consider as these teams continue their collision course.
Both are still excellent clubs with excellent chances at winning a Cup, and the fact that they have to meet in the second round is a joke.
You never want to draw too many conclusions from four games, even if they’re four playoff games. With that said, unless something crazy happens tonight, one has to imagine Winnipeg has the slightest edge if things continue as they have.
Which, even a week ago, would have been a much bolder prediction.
All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.