Conference finals preview: Nashville Predators vs. Anaheim Ducks

A second chance has a mystical quality to it. Not everyone receives one, and built into the subtext are the memories of the squandered opportunity. Most likely, the first chance crumbled painfully. Scars were formed. The Anaheim Ducks wilted in 2015, squandering a 3-2 series lead over the Chicago Blackhawks and failing to secure a trip to the Stanley Cup final. Game 7 ended in embarrassing fashion.

Even in 2014, the Ducks held a 3-2 series lead over the eventual champion Kings before faltering. Again Game 7 concluded in embarrassing fashion. In 2007, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry won a Cup as very young men, and now the wizened vets have another chance. For the superstar duo, along with Ryan Kesler, this is likely their final attempt before age overtakes them and the franchise drops a tier. They miraculously escaped death against the Edmonton Oilers, but can they topple a defense that seems indomitable and a forward line that has proven unstoppable thus far?

A forensic on how the Predators went from inconsistent regular season play, sliding into a Wild Card spot, to Western Conference juggernaut makes for interesting strategy reflection. The most salient point is that Nashville inverts the traditional power model.

The best way to win a Cup is to have better star forwards than your opponent. Everything hums around how good your best centers and wingers are, and if you can surround those skilled forwards with three-to-four mobile, playmaking defensemen and a quality goaltender, that is a Cup team. The Blackhawks and Penguins won five Stanley Cups using this model. And the Oilers and Maple Leafs will dominate the next five-to-ten years using this blueprint. But the Predators turn this paradigm on its head.

The Predators’ power lies in its highly gifted, playmaking defensemen (Roman Josi, P.K. Subban, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm). In the postseason, there is less space, and that puts a premium on teams that can succeed at forcing a turnover on the forecheck and initiating the cycle. But Nashville has stamped out any hope on those maneuvers. Their defensemen are incredibly good at retrievals because they can gather the puck under pressure, and then skate or pass the puck out of danger. That sounds simple, but it is insanely difficult to do consistently. To have four defensemen who excel at it is almost unfair.

 That back-end talent disrupts and squelches the opponent’s forecheck, and in tandem with the defensemen rupturing opponent’s possession time is goaltender Pekka Rinne’s knack for handling the puck. He is very good at corralling the swinging dump-in and can fire a strong outlet pass, meaning every dump-in needs to be specifically placed in a corner where a pursuing skater can contest it.

But even if the Predators’ defensemen do not connect on their first pass to a forward along the half-wall, they can push the puck out of the zone with an area pass to create a race for their speedy forwards. Sometimes their forwards track down the puck, but if the opponent collects possession and regroups for a counterattack, they have to try to attack with the Predators’ four skaters sitting back in the neutral zone between their blue line and center ice. It’s like trying to jump through barbed wire. You can survive, but you won’t be unscathed. The forwards and defensemen understand the gaps they need to protect, and they will force a turnover or punish you physically with a thundering bodycheck. This forces a dump-in, and remember, those usually don’t work. If the Ducks do try to penetrate the Predators’ stacked neutral zone, they will need to make a concerted effort toward transition defense.

Rush opportunities for the second, third, and fourth lines also appear when opponents finally do get a foothold in the offensive zone. The Blackhawks and Blues became super aggressive because the forecheck had been ineffective.

Unfortunately for them, when they overloaded a side or had three forecheckers deep along the goal line with a defenseman pinching on the strong side, this led to an odd-man rush for the Predators and some excellent scoring opportunities. This explains how even with electrifying winger Kevin Fiala getting severely injured, making the Predators’ top-heavy forward group even thinner, Nashville is undeterred.

Anaheim is a team that depends heavily on the forecheck. They subsist on retrievals and banging bodies around the paint and below the goal line. But the Predators are built to thwart that. So for the Ducks to succeed, they need to utilize the Goldilocks’ solution. Put the puck not too far below the goal line (so Rinne or the D can swiftly exit the zone) but not too close (by brazenly trying to carry it through traffic).

This will require patience. They will need to have wingers slashing through the neutral zone presenting a passing target, but only for a deliberate tip for another forward to chase down. Tip plays in the neutral zone are employed quite frequently during these playoffs, and the Ducks’ defenders are good passers who will need to utilize their half of the neutral zone, passing and skating around looking for a good passing lane to achieve this end. This is a tough task, but things could potentially get easier if the Ducks force a lot of faceoffs in Nashville’s zone.

The Ducks were good in the faceoff circle against the Oilers, and they are a team that relies on their defensemen to engage as playmakers as the forwards focus on creating traffic and retrieving. The Predators are unusual because they play man-to-man defense, so lots of puck movement can have the Predators’ blueliners out by the blue line defending like wingers, and that leaves room for missed assignments and space in the home-plate area as forwards scramble to do the job of the defensemen.

The Ducks have a solid transition scoring attack, and considering how good the Predators are at breakouts and defending in the neutral zone, this is a point of emphasis. Unfortunately, Nashville’s defensemen have excellent recovery speed and their forwards have been responsible in their transition defense. But there is no question that access is possible the faster the counterattack proceeds. That means Getzlaf and Perry leading the transition is probably a doomed mission. Both are great players, but they are far too slow to lead a successful rush against this Nashville team. Jakob Silfverberg and Andrew Cogliano are two of the speedier puck-movers, and even though the idea of that duo and Kesler attempting to shut down the Forsberg line seems a fait accompli in the abstract, it might be wise to split up those two.

Anaheim’s puck-handlers need to accelerate the rush to a pace where the Predators are stretched and uncomfortable. If the Ducks can catch the Predators out of their default setting, and the Ducks’ defense asserts itself as a threatening second layer, then the Predators’ transition defense can be exploited. Of course, Rinne has been spectacular so far, so this whole exercise is a bit of wishful thinking if he continues in the same vein.

The gymnastics that the Ducks need to achieve just to enter the zone and establish territorial advantage is reason for praise. How they stop the creatively nimble and indefatigable Forsberg line is another issue, especially when Nashville is at home or the Ducks don’t get the matchup. Anaheim has struggled to seal passing lanes, and the Predators have been finding the seams and generating offense off the cycle and rush.

Nashville’s speed and second wave in transition completely overwhelmed Chicago. A very good Blues’ defense was pummeled by this as onslaught as well. The Predators’ defensemen act as an offensive catalyst for a forward group that is quite weak after the Ryan Johansen-Filip Forsberg-Viktor Ardvidsson line.

The Predators’ stud defensemen can score from distance, and know how to feed the forwards in scoring areas. Sometimes, they empower their centers and wingers with advantageously placed shots that plop right into the lap of a forward in the low-slot. Anaheim’s John Gibson has a bright future, but he looks like the weaker goaltender in this matchup. With Rinne and the defense exceling, and offense that generates enough, the Predators should cruise.

Predators in six

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