The Nashville Predators open Stanley Cup Playoff action tonight against the Colorado Avalanche. It is the opening statement on the mission for the Cup.
From the moment the 2016-17 season finished, the mission was clear for this team. Tasting the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in franchise history left them hungry for more. Injuries, bad bounces, and momentary lapses in play prevented victory. Now, the Nashville Predators are focused on not letting that happen again.
Sixteen wins are what is needed to hoist the Cup and for confetti to rain. But those wins can’t happen if the Predators do not win the first one. Tonight, the mission is initiated. The first objective is to leave no doubt who is the best team in the NHL. Last night, the defending Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins stole the hearts of the Philadelphia Flyers, thrashing them 7-0 in Game 1 of their series. Pittsburgh won the season series 4-0 over the Flyers, as the Predators did over the Colorado Avalanche.
When the puck drops tonight, the Predators must make an opening statement much like the Penguins. Taking a 3-0 lead after the first period would be amazing. And loud. But, making that happen will be a challenge.
Tale of the tape
Questions surround the Avalanche and their ability to make this series competitive. Injuries to key players fill fans with doubt. Top defensemen Erik Johnson suffered a broken patella at the end of March and is out for the entire playoffs. While Colorado has other physical blue-liners, Johnson played well on both sides of the ice.
Additionally, the Avalanche are forced to start backup goalie Jonathan Bernier. Starter Semyon Varlamov is out for the first round due to a leg injury. Bernier season was solid and included wins over Toronto, Winnipeg, and Pittsburgh. However, he has not faced the Nashville Predators this season. He finished the year with a 19-13-3 record but was 6-9-3 on the road.
Offensively, Colorado relies heavily on their top line. The trio of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog account for 93 of the 255 goals scored this season. The rest of the forwards on the team scored 115 goals, including only 6 from Colin Wilson.
How the Preds hunt
With the injuries and reliance on their top line, Colorado could be buried in an avalanche by the Predators. After how the Predators played toward the end of the season, expect the JoFA line force the issue around the net. While only a combined 70 goals for the season, Ryan Johansen, Viktor Arvidsson, and Filip Forsberg set the tone for the offense. The grit of Arvidsson around the ice in combination with Johansen’s tenacity make for one of the best front lines in all of hockey.
The JoFa line is followed by Kyle Turris, Craig Smith, and Kevin Fiala with 61 goals, but they are no less lethal. Smith’s speed annoys opponents and creates turnovers. Turris and Fiala know how to gain position and generate scoring chances.
If the top two lines are matched against lower lines from the Avalanche, things could get out of hand quickly. Slating Nick Bonino, Austin Watson, and Colton Sissons against MacKinnon’s line may be ideal. Between their physical play and ability to block pucks, Fisher’s line could frustrate the Avalanche.
Have we mentioned the Predators’ defense? The top four defensemen are among the best in the NHL. The top six are the envy of the league. Captain Roman Josi leads the team in blocks and is fifth in points. P.K. Subban draws the ire of opponents and fans, yet still finds ways to push the offense forward. And then you have Ryan Ellis, with a laser shot and the ability to keep opponents out of danger areas.
Oh, and we have Pekka Rinne.
The Nashville Predators are healthy and focused. While there were a few smiles after the team clinched the Presidents’ trophy, players constantly state there is more to do. They want the Cup. In order to accomplish their mission, Coach Laviolette will deploy his top combinations from the start.
Filip Forsberg – Ryan Johansen – Viktor Arvidsson
Kevin Fiala – Kyle Turris – Craig Smith
Colton Sissons – Nick Bonino – Austin Watson
Roman Josi – Ryan Ellis
Mattias Ekholm – P.K. Subban
Where to watch
It is playoff hockey time! Game 1 of this series starts at 8:30 p.m. Central Time and will be broadcast on Fox Sports Tennessee. Fans outside of Nashville can watch on NBCSN in the United State or Sportnet in Canada. Fans can also tune into 102.5 The Game to listen to Peter Weber call the game.