And then there were four. Two teams from each conference are still fighting for their playoff lives, and the fun starts tonight as the Anaheim Ducks host the Nashville Predators.
Interesting story lines surround both teams. The Predators entered the postseason as the eighth seed in the West, and they’ve gone on to sweep the number one seed Chicago Blackhawks and take down the St. Louis Blues in six games.
The Ducks’ four-year run of getting knocked out in a game seven by a lower seeded Western Conference team just barely came to an end on Wednesday as they defeated the Edmonton Oilers 2-1 to break a 3-3 series tie and advance to their first conference final since 2015 where they fell to the Blackhawks.
This series will be full of matchups to watch. Here’s a look at three keys to a Stanley Cup final berth for either side.
The Predators have a sneaky dangerous offense and Ryan Kesler’s line will see a lot of Ryan Johansen, one of Nashville’s biggest catalysts throughout the postseason.
Kesler’s game is well-known: he’s a physical center, sometimes to a fault, and he’s still among the better two-way players in the league. He’ll have his hands full with a talented center like Johansen who can do it all in the offensive end, whether it’s playmaking, scoring, or creating space for his wingers.
Transition offense will need to be a factor for Kesler. If his line can disrupt the offense and move it the other way quickly, that will make them even more dangerous and it will make Nashville have to compensate.
Of the players still on surviving teams, Sidney Crosby is the only one who has taken more faceoffs than Kesler, who has won 54.5% of his 235 draws. Expect him to take big faceoffs, both in the offensive and defensive zone. Johansen also is no slouch in the faceoff circle. He has won an impressive 55.7% of his 212 draws.
Ryan Getzlaf, Jakob Silfverberg, and Rickard Rakell have been the offensive leaders for Anaheim through the first two rounds, but a Stanley Cup contender needs depth scoring, which has been hit or miss for them thus far.
Andrew Cogliano, a historically effective playoff performer, comes into Friday’s action with just three points in 11 games. He’ll be playing opposite of Silfverberg on Kesler’s line, so look for him to be an important piece in Anaheim’s two-way game.
Young power forward Nick Ritchie netted the deciding goal against the Oilers in game seven, which gave him two goals in nine playoff games. If he can feed off of that moment and have it carry over into this series, it’ll make Anaheim’s bottom-six significantly more dangerous.
Youth on the Blue Line
When you talk about young defenses across the league, most people’s minds quickly go to the Carolina Hurricanes or the Philadelphia Flyers, but Anaheim’s group of young defenders is just as impressive and has been making a big impact.
Shea Theodore, Cam Fowler, and Brandon Montour have all had great runs for the Ducks, holding it down in their own and creating a lot of offensive chances up ice. These are three dangerous and dynamic blueliners that can make game-breaking plays, but they’re going against a great defensive unit in Nashville.
Anaheim’s defense will either make or break their Stanley Cup hopes. John Gibson needs all the help he can get in net.
Nashville’s playoff run has been largely on the back of Pekka Rinne, the hottest goalie throughout the playoffs.
Rinne has a beefy lead among playoff goalies in save percentage (.951) and goals against average (1.37). He’s playing the best hockey of his career and it’s coming at the most crucial of moments for a Nashville team that desperately needs him to be a substantial influence.
The Predators are among the top-five playoff teams both on the powerplay and the penalty kill.
They’ve scored on 20% of their man advantages and they’re killing a very impressive 87.5% of their penalties, which is the highest clip of the final four teams remaining.
On the flip side of things, the Ducks are bottom dwellers. Of the 16 playoff teams, Anaheim ranks 14th in power play success rate (13.9%) and 25th on the penalty kill (69%). The fact that anaheim has made it this far despite their atrocious penalty kill is shocking, but Nashville needs to take full advantage if they have the opportunity to, which they likely will, considering they've been penalized a staggering 42 times in 11 games.
This young Swede was great in the first round, scoring big goals and truly feeding off of a fantastic regular season, but he was largely held in check against the Blues.
If he can get back to exploiting defenses and using his small stature and maneuverability to his advantage, he will add a lot to an already very dangerous Nashville offense, led by the likes of Johansen, Filip Forsberg, and an incredible group of defensemen.
Arvidsson is quick, talented, and he can score big time goals. The Predators will need him to do all of those things against the Ducks.