Predators vs. Stars: PHT 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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If you want to get cute with it, you can deem Predators – Stars as the battle of the team with a coach who worse a horse mask versus the team whose CEO called his own players, uh, horse-blank. And, hey, considering the “nontraditional” roots of both franchises, this also features teams with fans most likely to ride actual horses. It’s all enough to leave you hoarse.

But beyond all of that horsin’ around, the Predators and Stars truly are remarkably similar teams.

While the combination of Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin has been far hotter this season, each squad boasts two goalies (Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros) who could conceivably be ridden to strong performances during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Most other West teams wish they merely had one such goalie.

Unfortunately, the Stars and Predators also need that great goaltending the most among West teams, at least judging by this season.

The Stars and Predators needed to rank in the top four in fewest goals allowed this season, as they weren’t setting scoreboards on fire.

Dallas scored just 209 goals this season, tied for third-worst, joining the Islanders as the only other playoff team in the bottom 10. The Predators weren’t that much better (236 goals, 13th-worst), and they languished with the NHL’s least efficient power play at a still-rather-shocking 12.9 percent.

Strange things can happen during hockey’s postseason, and goalies are a strange breed beyond that, but this sure seems like it’s going to be a tight-checking nail-biter of a series.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

SCHEDULE
Wednesday, April 10, 9:30 p.m.: Stars @ Predators | USA, SN1, TVA Sports
Saturday, April 13, 6 p.m.: Stars @ Predators | CNBC, SN, TVA Sports
Monday, April 15, 9:30 p.m.: Predators @ Stars | NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports
Wednesday, April 17, 8 p.m. Predators @ Stars | USA, SN, TVA Sports
*Saturday, April 20, TBD: Stars @ Predators | TBD
*Monday, April 22, TBD: Predators @ Stars | TBD
*Wednesday, April 24, TBD: Stars @ Predators | TBD

FORWARDS

STARS: Despite Jim Lites’ criticisms, the Stars should thank the top line of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Alexander Radulov for providing most of their scoring. Seguin (80 points) and Radulov (74 points) have the most points of any players in this series, and while Benn is no longer the player who once won the Art Ross Trophy, he ranked third among the Stars with 53 points, 27 of which were goals.

The drop off from the top forwards and everyone else is steep, as Radek Faksa is the fourth-highest scoring Stars forward with just 30 points. Faksa’s known for a strong defensive game more than anything else, so he’s not chopped liver, but the point is that this is a top-heavy bunch.

One interesting wild card is Mats Zuccarello, though. The poor soul got hurt blocking a shot in his first Stars appearance, but he’s slated to be in the lineup during Game 1, and the Stars are tinkering with a Zuccarello – Benn combination. Could a one-line team become a two-line team?

Of course, both Nashville and Dallas lean heavily on their defensemen to score, but that’s for the next section.

PREDATORS: At a quick glance, the Predators’ top line seems inferior, with Ryan Johansen‘s 64 points leading the way. Injuries cloud such judgments, though, as Viktor Arvidsson managed 34 goals in just 58 games (!) this season, while Filip Forsberg was his usual dynamic self with 28 goals and 50 points in 64 games. The gap between these two teams’ top line is small, if they aren’t outright even.

On paper, the Predators should boast better depth, but they really haven’t been able to click. Kyle Turris has suffered through a pretty miserable season, and Mikael Granlund‘s been mouse-quiet since being traded to Nashville. Meanwhile, Wayne Simmonds is struggling through an almost tragically rough contract year.

ADVANTAGE: Nashville, by a hair. While Faksa ranked fourth in Stars forward scoring with 30 points, the Predators had seven forwards who had 30+, and Turris almost certainly would have hit that mark if he wasn’t limited to 55 games. Granlund scored 54 points counting his superior totals with the Wild. Zuccarello makes the argument more fascinating, though.

DEFENSE

STARS: After Seguin, Radulov, and Benn, the Stars’ next three leading scorers were all defensemen: John Klingberg (10 goals, 45 points), Miro Heiskanen (12G, 33P), and Esa Lindell (11G, 32P). Klingberg managed to get that many points in 64 games, and as Stars fans will tell you until your ears are red, he’s very worthy of his hype as a future Norris hopeful.

Where the Stars’ top guys are grappling at least slightly with Father Time, the Stars’ trio is in their primes, with Klingberg at 26, Lindell 24, and Heiskanen somehow this great already at 19.

This is a modern group, and while they’re not as hyped or as well-compensated as the Predators’ blueliners, they’re gaining fast as far as on-ice effectiveness is concerned.

PREDATORS: For the standards of Nashville’s defensemen, you could count 2018-19 as a bit of an off-year, but they likely remain the deepest group in the NHL, or at least rank highly in that regard.

Much like Dallas, three of Nashville’s defensemen ranked in the top six in overall team scoring: Roman Josi (15 goals, 56 points), Mattias Ekholm (8G, 44P), and Ryan Ellis (7G, 41P). Despite being limited to 63 games played, P.K. Subban almost hit double digits in goals with nine, and finished with 31 points. Missing time likely exaggerated worries about Subban’s overall game, as he remains a strong two-way player.

It will also be interesting to monitor Dante Fabbro. He’s a fairly well-regarded prospect, but coaches are reluctant to trust rookies, especially late-arriving ones, and Laviolette is not really an exception. (See: Tolvanen, Eeli.) Fabbro could give Nashville’s third pairing a boost, and while that wouldn’t be a revolutionary change, it could matter in a series where the margin of error figures to be slim.

ADVANTAGE: Predators, but not by as much as some would think. Dallas’ defense is underrated, but Nashville’s group is among the most potent and polished in the NHL.

GOALTENDING

STARS: If Ben Bishop stayed healthy (an unfortunately common phrase for Bishop), he’d get some heavy Vezina hype. He generated a .934 save percentage this season, brilliant even compared to his very strong career average of .921. Bishop put together an absurd .969 save percentage over nine March games, with a league-best .959 save percentage since February (among anyone who played at least two games, sorry Christopher Gibson).

Anton Khudobin hasn’t been far behind, producing a strong .923 save percentage in 41 games.

Jim Montgomery’s system and some strong young defensemen helped, but this Stars team shut opponents down because of stellar goaltending.

PREDATORS: If you had to wager on the best goalie pairing heading into 2018-19, you could have done worse than the (“father – son”) combination of Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros.

Goalies are about as easy to predict as cats are to herd, so they haven’t been the best … but they’ve still been fine. Rinne sported a solid .918 save percentage this season, and after a rough start, Saros ended up with a respectable .915 mark.

Of course, Rinne’s had his playoff nightmares, so people will wonder if those demons will crop again. Maybe the more interesting question is: if they do, will Laviolette go to Saros if needed?

ADVANTAGE: Stars, with mild concerns that Bishop isn’t 100 percent. Of all the West series, this is the one where you could be reasonably confident about both tandems. Again, though: they’re goalies.

ONE BIG QUESTION FOR EACH TEAM

What if the Stars’ first line is horse manure?

One could imagine some Stars executive gloating about giving Seguin “tough love,” but this was really about Seguin finally getting the bounces that didn’t go his way, pre-horse-bleep. If that luck dries up once again, can other lines shovel in some goals?

(Note: yes, you could ask similar questions about the Predators’ depth, too.)

Can the Predators’ power play do something?

NHL officials are notorious for “putting away their whistles” during the playoffs, relative to the regular season, but special teams will still be prominent. Actually, considering how tight this series could be – and how much each team struggles to score goals – getting a few markers on the man advantage might just swing the series.

If nothing else, the Predators spent big to improve this weakness. Wayne Simmonds has slipped, but his resume as a PP specialist is robust. Brian Boyle‘s big body is useful in screening goalies, even a jumbo-sized one like Ben Bishop. Things have looked better at times recently, but overall, the power play looms as a potential problem for the Preds.

PREDICTION

NASHVILLE IN 6. These two teams are structured very similarly, so here’s betting that the Predators are just a little better at making this formula work.

MORE PREVIEWS:
• Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
• Lightning vs. Blue Jackets
 Sharks vs. Golden Knights
Flames vs. Avalanche
Jets vs. Blues
Islanders vs. Penguins
Capitals vs Hurricanes

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.