Second-round preview: Nashville Predators vs. St. Louis Blues

The Predators’ story is one of changing identity. Still a relatively young franchise (founded in 1998), they bear the scars of their past. They started as a defense-first team, then experienced hiccups as they tried to pivot and change strategy under coach Peter Laviolette. Their strides to incorporate a more up-tempo, possession game have been ongoing for some time now, but finally, this season, past disappointments propelled them toward progress. Their metamorphosis into a speedy, skilled, and balanced team that could accelerate past the Blackhawks is an exclamation point. This team is still built around its defense, but its methods are different.

The Blackhawks’ offense, considered to be one of the most electric in the NHL, was thwarted and muffled in dramatic fashion. The Predators’ mobile defensemen helped dismantle the opposing rush by stepping up on the Blackhawks’ forwards, forcing dynamic wingers like Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin to dump the puck in. A second layer of speed from the Predators’ forwards buttressed their defensemen’s combative maneuvers.

The Predators had numbers in transition defense, and their defensive group did a good job of forcing turnovers when the Chicago forwards tried to slip the puck behind Nashville, hoping to go chase it. A swarming transition defense resulted in a lack of space and options for Chicago. When the puck was successfully put behind the goal line, Nashville’s forwards would sink low to help retrieve for a speedy breakout. That’s why the Blackhawks’ offense was so helpless. They were losing races and they couldn’t escape an enveloping Nashville defense.

While the Blues didn’t sweep the Wild, their five-game series win was impressive for several reasons. The Blues’ forecheck was dogged in the offensive zone. St. Louis forced turnovers and crashed the net hard. The first forechecker was adept at swallowing up the Wild defenseman when he went back for a retrieval. The Blues’ defensemen were engaged, and the stars performed.

Meanwhile, the Wild rush attack was less effective than it needed to be, and their cycle game was settling for shots on the perimeter. The Blues did a strong job defending the home-plate area, and their forwards demonstrated unflagging effort on the backcheck and in picking up their assignments when the Wild were attacking. (It should be noted that the Wild dominated the shot-attempt margin against the Blues. In close game situations, Minnesota finished with a +54 in the series.)

The Predators are a good east-west passing team, a benefit of their defensemen being so dynamic – seams open up when a second level needs to be accounted for – and also because they have some good passers at wing and center. Against the Blues, the Predators are going to want to push the pace. They finished with the second-best shooting percentage in the first round, and one reason for that is they were able to stretch the Blackhawks vertically and horizontally.

The Predators have good speed to the outside, and they can execute the horizontal pass to the middle or they can stop and shovel it back to their defenseman for a hard shot from the point. They also have creative offensive players like Filip Forsberg, who can penetrate the defensive coverage and open up space for his linemates. The Predators depend on the Forsberg line to make a scoring impact, so if the Blues use the Alex Pietrangelo pairing against them and deploy some nettlesome checkers, it could conceivably dry up the Predators’ scoring.

These teams come into this matchup with the two hottest goaltenders in the playoffs. Pekka Rinne has made 123 saves out of 126 shots for a .976 save percentage and .70 goals against, and Jake Allen has made 174 saves out of 182 shots for a .956 save percentage and 1.47 goals against. Those are two ridiculous sets of stats. The way to disrupt a goaltender so locked in is to create chaos in front of the net and take away his sightline. It also helps to shoot a lot. Both teams defend the middle very well, so when the forecheck stalls and play is restricted to the perimeter, it will be interesting to see whether the series gets decided by special teams.

Allen was excellent in the first round, but I have concerns about whether he can sustain that against a more flexible Predators’ attack. The Blues will have their hands full trying to hem the Predators in on the cycle because Nashville’s defense is so gifted at finding the outlets or skating around pressure with their powerful mobility. If that happens, the onus will be on the Blues’ forwards to eliminate the passing lanes on the second level of the rush attack.

Predators in six

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