ashton-remax_NEWIt’s time.

The Nashville Predators will embark on what they hope to be another journey to the Stanley Cup Final when they take on the Colorado Avalanche in the first round of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. This time around, the Predators are coming into the playoffs with high expectations having won the Presidents’ Trophy as the best team in the NHL.

Here is a comprehensive preview of the Predators’ first-round matchup with Colorado.

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Series Schedule (Times Central)

Game 1: Thursday, April 12 at 8:30 p.m. – Avalanche at Predators at Bridgestone Arena; TV: NBCSN, Sportsnet and TVA Sports

Game 2: Saturday, April 14 at 2 p.m. – Avalanche at Predators at Bridgestone Arena; TV: NBC, CNBC, Sportsnet, TVA Sports

Game 3: Monday, April 16 at 9 p.m. – Predators at Avalanche at Pepsi Center; TV: NBCSN, Sportsnet, TVA Sports

Game 4: Wednesday, April 18 at 9 p.m. – Predators at Avalanche at Pepsi Center; TV: NBCSN, Sportsnet, TVA Sports

*Game 5: Friday, April 20 at TBA – Avalanche at Predators at Bridgestone Arena; TV: TBA

*Game 6: Sunday, April 22 at TBA – Predators at Avalanche at Pepsi Center; TV: TBA

*Game 7: Tuesday, April 24 at TBA – Avalanche at Predators at Bridgestone Arena: TV: TBA

*If necessary

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Team Records

Nashville Predators: 53-18-11, 117 points, finished as the top seed in the Western Conference, having won the Central Division and Presidents’ Trophy

Colorado Avalanche: 43-30-9, 95 points, finished as the second wild card team in the Western Conference

Match-up History

Predators All-Time Record vs. Avalanche: 42-31-5

First Meeting: October 31, 1998, Predators defeated Avalanche 3-2

Predators All-Time Record vs. Avalanche at Pepsi Center: 20-18-2

Predators All-Time Record vs. Avalanche at Bridgestone Arena: 22-13-3

The Predators and Avalanche have never met in the playoffs.

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Meetings This Season

First Meeting: October 17, 2017, Bridgestone Arena, Predators 4 Avalanche 1

In a matchup that some thought would be a look at future trade bait in Matt Duchene, the Predators took down the Avalanche 4-1 in their first meeting of the season. The Predators showed their dominance with three second-period goals, including Roman Josi’s first goal of the year.

The highlight of the game came in the final minute of the second period when Craig Smith came into the offensive zone on an odd-man rush and found Colton Sissons streaking towards the net. Sissons made a great move in front to beat goaltender Semyon Varlamov to pad the Predators’ lead.

Second Meeting: November 18, 2017, Bridgestone Arena, Predators 5 Avalanche 2

This game was a good old fashioned beatdown at the hands of the Predators. They scored the first five goals of the game and dominated the whole game. Craig Smith got the scoring started late in the first period and the Predators continued their roll with goals separated by just under a minute and a half from Colton Sissons and Anthony Bitetto.

Viktor Arvidsson continued his extremely hot start in the third period by scoring his eighth goal of the season to make the score 5-0.

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Third Meeting: March 4, 2018, Pepsi Center, Predators 4 Colorado 3 (OT)

Nashville won their eighth straight game thanks to a massive late rally in a Sunday matinee. Ryan Ellis scored with just over a minute left in regulation to take the game to overtime. With the extra attacker on the ice, Ellis got a one-time pass from P.K. Subban and rifled it past the goalie to tie the game. In overtime, Filip Forsberg made a incredible play, driving down the right boards and sniping the puck just past Varlamov for the game-winner.

It was the Predators’ second-straight overtime win and gave them an undefeated West coast road trip.

Fourth Meeting: March 16, 2018, Pepsi Center, Predators 4 Colorado 2 

In their final meeting of the season, the Predators clinched a playoff berth with a dominant win on the back end of a back-to-back. It was Nashville’s 10th straight victory over Colorado. After finding themselves down 2-1 early in the second period, Filip Forsberg scored to tie the game before Colton Sissons netted the eventual game-winner.

The third period was a defensive grudge match with no goals until Arvidsson laid up an easy empty-net goal to Forsberg for his 20th goal of the season. Juuse Saros made 33 saves in the win.

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Projected Lines/Pairings

Nashville Predators

Forwards:

Filip Forsberg-Ryan Johansen-Viktor Arvidsson

Kevin Fiala-Kyle Turris-Craig Smith

Colton Sissons-Nick Bonino-Ryan Hartman

Eeli Tolvanen-Mike Fisher-Austin Watson

Extra forwards: Scott Hartnell, Miikka Salomaki, Calle Jarnkrok (INJ)

Defense:

Roman Josi-Ryan Ellis

P.K. Subban-Mattias Ekholm

Alexei Emelin-Anthony Bitetto

Extra defensemen: Matt Irwin, Yannick Weber

Goalies:

Pekka Rinne

Juuse Saros

Injury report: Calle Jarnkrok was announced as day-to-day on Sunday, so he could potentially return at any time. Although, given the Predators’ depth at forward, they don’t necessarily need to rush him back.

Colorado Avalanche:

Forwards:

Gabriel Landeskog-Nathan Mackinnon-Mikko Rantanen

Sven Andrighetto-Tyson Jost-Alexander Kerfoot

Matt Nieto-Carl Soderberg-Blake Comeau

Gabriel Bourque-J.T. Compher-Colin Wilson

Extra forwards: Vladislav Kamenev, Dominic Toninato, Nail Yakupov

Defense:

Nikita Zadorov-Tyson Barrie

Patrik Nemeth-Samuel Girard

Mark Barberio-Mark Alt

Extra defensemen: Anton Lindholm, Duncan Siemens, David Warsofsky, Erik Johnson (INJ)

Goalies:

Jonathan Bernier

Andrew Hammond

Injury report: Starting goalie Semyon Varlamov missed the last few games of the regular season and will miss the series with a lower-body injury. In addition, defenseman Erik Johnson will miss the series with fractured patella. He wouldn’t be available to return until much later in a potential Avalanche run.

Key Player for Both Sides

DocDoctorsLogoThe Predators trust Sissons in big scenarios, especially as a face-off winner. He’s won 55.29% of his face-offs this season. According to Natural Stat Trick, he’s also taken 67.73% of his face-offs in the defensive zone, meaning the coaching staff trusts him to win draws when they need to clear the zone.

“It’s something that I take pride in and I want to be that guy,” Sissons said of his big role on the team. “I want to be the guy on the ice taking that huge face-off or having the opportunity to clear that puck at the end of games. I’ve been entrusted with that pretty significantly this year and consistently throughout the season. I’m hoping for that not to change.”

Colorado: Samuel Girard

In his brief stint with the Predators early in the season, Girard looked like a future cornerstone defenseman. That’s why he was used to acquire a top-level forward in Kyle Turris as part of a three-team trade involving the Avalanche and Ottawa Senators.

In Colorado’s win over the St. Louis Blues that propelled them into the playoffs, Girard scored a key goal and looked like the defenseman of the future. With a key player like Erik Johnson sidelined with an injury and an offensive juggernaut like the Predators looming, the Avalanche will need all the defensive help they can get. Quite simply, Girard will need to play beyond his years if the Avalanche want a shot at pulling the upset.

Match-ups to Watch

Jonathan Bernier vs. All The Shots

Without their starting goalie, the Avalanche could very well have a goalie-by-committee system with Bernier and Hammond. However, it appears Bernier will be the lead guy moving forward. He’s a backup goalie and he’s going to be facing one of the most potent offenses in the NHL.

Talk about a tall task.

Despite the fact that Nashville was not one of the top teams in generating “high-danger” scoring chances, they are extremely good at capitalizing on their top-tier chances, scoring on 99 high-danger chances (sixth in the NHL) according to Natural Stat Trick. The Predators will be flying around, and the Avalanche will need their goalie to be up to the task if they want to be successful.

Avalanche Top Forwards vs. Nashville’s Bottom Pairing 

Everyone knows how good the Predators’ top four defensemen are. Their bottom pairing is not bad by any stretch of the imagination, and actually saw an improvement over last year with the addition of Alexei Emelin. However, in Games 3 and 4, the Avalanche will be able to roll out their elite forwards against the bottom pairing thanks to having the last line change.

The Pittsburgh Penguins employed the same strategy to win their three home games during the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. Nashville has home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs, so they would still be able to win the series with four wins at home, but they would probably want to finish a first-round series like this much quicker. Winning those battles on the road will be key in keeping this a short series.

Nashville Predators vs. Expectations 

Last year, the Predators entered the playoffs with little to no expectations. Most national media members picked the Chicago Blackhawks to win handily. We all know how that went…

This year’s Predators have even more expectations than the Blackhawks did last year. They want to avoid the same fate the Blackhawks fell into. Colorado is a hungry team that had to claw their way into the playoffs in their 82nd game. They’ll be fired up and ready to go. The Predators cannot rest on their laurels or coast at all. They’ll need to focus in and certainly not look past the Avalanche.

Goaltender Comparison

Nashville: 

Pekka Rinne

Games Started: 59

Wins: 42

GAA: 2.31

SV%: .927

Analysis: Rinne has been the bedrock of the Predators team all season long. That’s not to say they leaned on him too much, but he was absolutely dynamite in net. He finished the regular season in the top five in goals against average and wins, tied for first in shutouts and in the top 10 in save percentage. Even at age 35, Rinne is still playing lights-out hockey. Those crazy numbers could be attributed to the fact that he played the fewest games in a healthy season in his career since 2009-10 with just 59 starts, down from his 61 starts last season. By conceding more starts to backup Juuse Saros, Rinne should be rested and locked in for the playoffs.

Colorado: 

Jonathan Bernier

Games Started: 34

Wins: 19

GAA: 2.85

SV%: .913

Analysis: With Varlamov done for this series, Bernier will have to carry the weight for the Avalanche. He looked fairly solid this season in relief of Varlamov and helped propel them into the playoffs down the stretch. However, Bernier’s appearances were limited this year due to injuries. He has missed certain stretches of the season with all kinds of injuries. If he can stay healthy during these playoffs, he should be pretty reliable for Colorado. In the event of an injury or lackluster play, the Avalanche do have “The Hamburglar” waiting in the wings. The Predators are all too familiar with dominant backup goalies in the playoffs (see Darling, Scott), so neither Bernier nor Hammond should be dismissed as just “backups.”

Burning Questions

Can the Predators contain Mackinnon?

Center Nathan Mackinnon has made a good case for the Hart Trophy this season. After a few dismal seasons, the Avalanche have come a live, and it’s in part thanks to Mackinnon. He had 39 goals and 58 assists on the season, getting extremely close to eclipsing 100 points.

Last season, the Predators managed to effectively shut down top forwards like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Vladimir Tarasenko and Ryan Getzlaf. This time around, they’ll need to do the same with Mackinnon. Defenseman P.K. Subban served as that shutdown player last season, and he’ll likely reprise his role in 2018.

What role will Eeli Tolvanen play?

With Calle Jarnkrok still injured for the time being, an opportunity might present itself for the Finnish phenom to get some playing time in the playoffs. He did not play in Nashville’s final two regular season games, but he could still have a chance to play, especially against a speed-driven team like Colorado. If the opponent had been St. Louis, perhaps Miikka Salomaki would have gotten the nod. With so much speed on the ice between these two teams, Nashville will need to rest its heavy-game players in favor of fast skaters with high offensive upsides.

Tolvanen fits that description to a T. He should have the chance to play, at least on the fourth line. While he did not score or register a point during his brief regular season stint, he was an even-rating player and did not look like a liability on the ice. That bodes well for him to make an impact in the postseason.

Will Playoff Colin Wilson show up? 

The Predators traded away Wilson during this past offseason, and he has played a comfortable role on the Avalanche. He has six goals and 12 assists on the season, but he hasn’t been looked to as a top-six player by any standard. Wilson became notorious for his sudden playoff resurgence in Nashville after lackluster regular seasons, and that could carry over to this season as well.

In 2015-16, he had 13 points in 14 playoff games. Last season, he had just four in 14 playoff games. It remains to be seen if Playoff Colin Wilson returns for 2018, but if he does, he could spell some trouble for the Predators. The Avalanche are a more top-heavy team, so finding depth in the postseason would be a huge boon.

Prediction

As the Predators know, a fast team that slips into the playoffs at the end of the season cannot be taken lightly. The Predators were that team last season, so they will want to keep that eight-seed mentality even with high expectations.

However, no mentality can save the Avalanche in this series. They have plenty of top-level talent with players like Mackinnon and Landeskog, plus an emerging young talent in Rantanen. Beyond that, things get a bit dicier, and that’s where the Predators can dominate. There is no team in the Western Conference deeper than the Predators, and with home ice advantage on their side, Nashville should be able to take care of business in the first round. The Avalanche may steal one game at home in Denver, but the Predators will prove too tough to handle.

Prediction: Predators in Five

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