When the last skate was unlaced and all the Zambonis had thoroughly smoothed over the ice at the various arenas across North America yesterday, two things were certain: it was the end of the season for half of the NHL and the start of the next battle for the rest. This year, the Predators again find themselves in the thick of things, finishing their regular season seeded fifth overall in the Western Conference. Had Nashville won its last game of the season, they would have locked up the number four seed and secured home ice advantage heading into the post-season. Settling for fifth place works just as well though. Instead of meeting old foes like the Detroit Red Wings or the San Jose Sharks, this year's team will face off against the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference Quarterfinals for the first time in either franchise's history.
Now, I could sit here and tell you that I was even remotely considering the possibility of these two teams facing off against each other in the first round of the playoffs, but I would be lying. I was secretly hoping the Predators would fall to sixth place and stay there; securing another post-season match up between the dreaded Red Wings. Why would I wish this, you ask? The answer is simple: Nashville knows Detroit like the back of their collective hands at this point in the season. The Predators, once intimidated by the likes of Lidstrom, Datsyuk, Zetterberg, et al., have managed to overcome their awestruck-ness (yes, I probably just made that word up) and found a way to decisively win the season series between these two clubs, going 4-1-1. Playing Detroit (yet again) in the first round would have made for an awesome series. But alas, my secret hoping was not meant to be. Anaheim it is.
The Ducks are one of those teams I love to hate, and for no particular reason. Once Chris Pronger left, I held no specific aversion to any one player. The team on a whole plays a more gritty, aggressive, physical style of hockey than the Predators are prone to. That may be the cause of some of my dislike. I've never been a fan of aggressive physicality. Not that I'm opposed to a good, clean check when the time calls for it but...Anaheim consistently finds itself on the top of the leaderboard for penalty minutes each season. When paired against a team like Nashville, one that typically remains disciplined, you could see why Anaheim would not be my cup of tea. They are a good team, however. Closing out their season in fourth place in the Western Conference is no small feat for a team that struggled for their footing for a good portion of the year. Like I said yesterday, this could get interesting.
Heading into Wednesday night, I'd like to point out a few good reasons why the Predators should win this series and also a couple of obstacles they'll need to overcome to get there.
1. Shea Weber and Ryan Suter - I'm sure this is pointing out the obvious but this defensive duo is key to Nashville's success in the playoffs. When healthy, this pair is virtually unstoppable, as one can attest from checking their TOI game after game. It is worth noting that their best work comes when they're together however. Separate the two, and bad things are bound to happen.
2. Pekka Rinne - It's really no secret that Pekka has carried this team on his shoulders for most of the season. The coach knows it, the players know it, the media knows it, the fans know it. I am positive that Pekka knows it too. Basically all the team needs is for Pekka to continue playing like he has been all season. This isn't Rinne's first foray into the playoffs so there's no room for nerves here. Just consistent play and those "how in the H-E-double hockey sticks did he stop that?" kind of saves that we've come to appreciate over the last seven months.
3. Motivation - Not that every team in a playoff position isn't driven to win, but if ever there was a team with the drive and determination to win a round of the playoffs, the Predators are that team. You could go all the way back to the beginning of training camp last September and read quotes from Barry Trotz about the fate of Nashville in the coming season. All along, his goal for this team was not just to make the playoffs, but to win a round. This season was never about just squeaking by and making it to the post-season. It has been emphasized time and again that this year was about going further. There was that sense back in 2007, when the team traded for Peter Forsberg and seemingly positioned itself for a deep playoff run. But the expectation in that year seemed a little forced and somewhat taken for granted. This year, there's an urgency and a hunger. As the fans have long supported this team, there is a sense that this team is ready to give back to its fans, by being successful in their post-season showing for the first time in franchise history.
While the Predators are on the hunt for their first post-season success, there a couple of things to be on guard against concerning the Ducks.
1. Teemu Selanne - for a man who is on the brink of NHL retirement, you'd never know it. Teemu Selanne is a force to be reckoned with. Most would be concerned with Corey Perry, and probably rightly so, taking into account his late season performance that helped propel the team firmly into the playoff position they're in. Selanne, in my opinion, falls into the Silent But Deadly category. He'll come in and steal your thunder so quick, you won't even know what hit you until you're dusting off those golf clubs. The Predators defense needs to keep him in check as much as they would a Sidney Crosby or an Alex Ovechkin. The old man's gots skills.
2. Dan Ellis - Sure, Elly's had some ups and downs this season. But don't for a minute think that this man doesn't know how to bring it when it comes to playing lights out between the pipes. Need I remind you of the stellar performance he put up during the 2008-2009 post-season series against the Red Wings? Don't expect much less from him this time around.
And because I'm all about equal hockey fandom opportunity, I'll be bringing you the Anaheim Duck perspective tomorrow, featuring Finny, formerly of Girl With a Puck.