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.

Blues face prime opportunity to return to Stanley Cup Final

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When you have your opponent looking down and out in a playoff series you do not want to let them get back up.

You do not even want to give them the chance to get back up.

You want to eliminate them when you have the opportunity and remove all doubt, avoiding what would be an all-or-nothing Game 7 on the road.

That is the position the St. Louis Blues find themselves in heading into Game 6 of the Western Conference Final on Tuesday night (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN; live stream) when they will host an injury-riddled San Jose Sharks team.

The Blues have won the past two games, including a thoroughly dominant performance on Sunday, they are at home, and they are facing a Sharks team that is without two of its best players and potentially a third that will almost certainly not be 100 percent if he does play.

Everything has fallen in the Blues’ favor for this game, and it is hard to imagine a better opportunity to close out a series than this.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Just look at everything that is sitting in the Blues’ corner for this game.

  • Their best player, Vladimir Tarasenko, has gone on a tear and is riding a five-game point streak heading into Tuesday’s game. He was always going to be one of the biggest factors in this series and has found his scoring touch at just the right time.
  • The Sharks will not have Erik Karlsson, one of their most important players and a defender that can single-handedly change a team and a game when he is in the lineup. This series started to shift in the Blues’ favor when Karlsson’s groin injury resurfaced, limiting his ability to make an impact. He was obviously less than 100 percent in the Blues’ Game 4 win and barely played in Game 5 on Sunday. The Blues have outscored the Sharks by a 7-1 margin in those two games. Even though the Sharks still have another Norris Trophy winner (and a Norris Trophy finalist this season) in Brent Burns in their lineup, they are definitely a weaker team when one of them is out of the lineup.
  • The Sharks will also be without Tomas Hertl, currently their second-leading goal-scorer. With Hertl and Karlsson out it means the Sharks will be playing a must-win game without two of the top-six scorers in the playoffs and two players that have been involved in an overwhelming majority of their offense. At least one of Hertl or Karlsson has been on the ice for 39 of the Sharks’ 57 goals, while one of them has scored or assisted on 25 of them. When neither one is on the ice the Sharks have averaged just 2.22 goals per 60 minutes (all situations) in the playoffs. Not a great number.

So, yeah, this is a huge opportunity for the Blues and a game where it would probably be in their best interest to take care of business.

A loss on Tuesday night not only sends them to a Game 7 in San Jose where anything can happen, it also leaves open the possibility that one of those two key Sharks players (or even both of them) could be available. Yes, the Blues have been great on the road in these playoffs, but there is no guarantee that continues, especially in a win-or-go-home situation.

Even without Hertl and Karlsson the Sharks still have plenty of talent on their roster, so this game is far from a cake-walk for the Blues. But this is definitely the weakest lineup they are going to face in this matchup and there is never going to be a better opportunity to end a 49 year Stanley Cup Final drought than this night.

If they are going to do it, this seems like the game for it to happen.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Karlsson, Hertl out for Game 6; Pavelski game-time decision

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If the San Jose Sharks are going to force a Game 7 in the Western Conference Final against the St. Louis Blues they are going to have to do it on Tuesday night (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN; Live Stream) without a couple of their most important players.

Coach Pete DeBoer announced after the morning skate that defender Erik Karlsson and forward Tomas Hertl are not available for Game 6 against and that they did not even accompany the team on the road trip to St. Louis.

Both players exited the Sharks’ Game 5 loss on Sunday due to injury.

Karlsson has been hampered by a nagging groin injury that has resurfaced in the playoffs, while Hertl had to leave the game after he was on the receiving end of a high hit from Blues forward Ivan Barbashev. There was no penalty called on the play and Barbashev was not disciplined by the league.

Captain Joe Pavelski also exited Sunday’s game with an injury and did not take part in the morning skate on Tuesday but is a game-time decision according to DeBoer.

Pavelski had previously missed the first six games of the Sharks’ Round 2 series against the Colorado Avalanche after he was injured in their Game 7 win against the Vegas Golden Knights. He has five points (two goals, three assists) since returning to the lineup.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

While Pavelski at least seems like a possibility to play, the losses of Karlsson and Hertl are going to be significant for the Sharks.

Even though Karlsson has been limited by injury for much of the season he has still been an impact player and played a huge role in the team’s Round 1 comeback against the Golden Knights. He has 16 total points in 19 games and is the league’s fifth-leading scorer in the playoffs. It was obvious he was struggling in the Sharks’ Game 4 loss but still attempted to play in Game 5. It did not go well as he was clearly unable to play up to his normal level and logged just 10 minutes of ice time, with only three of those minutes coming after the first period.

Hertl, meanwhile, has been one of the Sharks’ most dynamic forwards and has scored some of their biggest goals this postseason, including a game-winning shorthanded goal in double overtime to help the team fight off elimination in Round 1, and one of the power play goals in their come-from-behind Game 7 win against the Golden Knights.

He has 10 goals (third among all players in the playoffs) and 15 total points.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Canes’ Martinook, de Haan have offseason surgeries

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Carolina Hurricanes forward Jordan Martinook and defenseman Calvin de Haan have had offseason surgeries.

General manager Don Waddell said Tuesday that Martinook had a procedure on a core muscle while de Haan’s surgery was on his right shoulder.

Martinook is expected to recover in 4-6 weeks while de Haan will be out 4-6 months.

The 26-year-old Martinook had a career-best 15 goals with five game-winners, and was in and out of the lineup during the playoffs due to injuries. The 28-year-old de Haan injured his shoulder against Pittsburgh on March 31 but returned for Game 4 of the first-round playoff series against Washington.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NH and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Blues seeking a shot at redemption as they try to close out Sharks

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A lot has happened in the past 49 years.

Cell phones, Instagram, selfies and, for the purposes of this story, a whole lot of hockey. What hasn’t happened in nearly half a century, however, is a St. Louis Blues team opposite another in the Stanley Cup Final.

The Blues could get with the times if they’re to find a way past the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday. (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN; live stream).

Some history…

It was 1970 when St. Louis made their third straight appearance in the Cup Final, their most recent. Having been swept in their previous two attempts, both at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens, the Blues were now coming up against another Original Six team with Bobby Orr’s Boston Bruins.

Different team, different legends, same result.

The Bruins snatched the broom from the Canadiens and repeated the process against the Blues thanks, in part, to one of the most iconic goals in NHL history that Number 4 scored in overtime to clinch the Stanley Cup.

The Blues are one win away from a chance at redemption, nearly 50 years in the making.

“It’s probably tough to put into words,” Blues forward Jaden Schwartz said. “It’s something that everyone’s worked for and dreamed about. You don’t want to look too far ahead. We all know how important and how hard that last win’s going to be. It would be a dream come true.”

The Sharks are treading familiar water heading into the game, something the Blues are acutely aware of.

“We’re close. We’re very close right now,” Blues forward Patrick Maroon said. “I think the guys know that. It’s in the back of their heads, but we know that that’s a good hockey team over there too and they’re not going to give up.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Some, even, won’t talk about it just yet.

“We will talk about it when we get there,” Alexander Steen said.

No team has been to more Stanley Cup Playoffs than the St. Louis Blues and not hoisted hockey’s holy grail at some point in June. Their 42 playoff appearances is far and away the most by any team (Buffalo is second with 29). A win Tuesday would also end the second-longest Cup Final drought in NHL history (behind only Toronto).

“It’s gonna be a lot of emotion and it’s important our players keep it in check,” head coach Craig Berube said. Our players have done a pretty good job of … focusing. I don’t expect anything different. It’s important at the start of the game you’re simple and direct. Keep your emotions in check and not let them get out of control.”

MORE: Tarasenko getting hot at right time for Blues

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck