(Originally published at Sports Radio Service)
“Sharks versus Predators” sounds a little bit like a made for tv monster movie, but the San Jose Sharks will face the Nashville Predators to start the second round of the NHL Playoffs on Friday.
The Predators came out of the Central Division as a wild card, so the Sharks did not see as much of them in the regular season as they saw of their first round Pacific Division opponent, the Los Angeles Kings. Nashville’s wild card status also gives San Jose home ice. The Sharks will have to do without their road advantage to win this series.
Probably the most important information to glean from the first round is the most obvious: the Predators played seven games, while the Sharks played only five. The Predators spent more travel time going between Nashville and Anaheim, while the Sharks traveled back and forth to Los Angeles. Round One put more mileage on the Predators than the Sharks by a big margin.
Another question would be about goaltending. Pekka Rinne has long been considered one of the league’s top goaltenders, despite his team’s conspicuous lack of playoff success. Martin Jones has performed admirably so far, despite this being his first time as a playoff starter. Neither goalie has been perfect but they have both been crucial to their team’s success.
Pekka Rinne gave up 17 goals through seven games, with a save percentage of .915. Martin Jones gave up 11 goals through five games, with a save percentage of .912. Martin Jones’ 2.18 GAA ranks fifth among playoff goalies, while Rinne’s 2.85 ranks ninth. Their save percentages are seventh and eighth in the same field.
Noteworthy in the rankings of 2016 playoff goaltenders is that two of the top three goalies in save statistics played for teams that have been eliminated. Maybe goaltending statistics do not tell you much about how a series will go.
Both Rinne and Jones finished all of their first round games, so the quality of their backups has not been an issue. If it were, I would give the edge to the Sharks’ James Reimer over the Predators’ Carter Hutton.
On paper, the Sharks have a better record in most categories than the Predators, in both the regular season and the first round. The Sharks scored more against a Pacific Division team than the Predators. But the Predators have not been and still are not an offense-first team. Much of their success comes from stingy defense. The Predators are a completely different kind of opponent than the Kings were.
In the few meetings between San Jose and Nashville this season, the Sharks lost the series 2-1. Their one win was in a shootout, and they lost one game 6-2. The Sharks have not fared well against the Predators. There is a glimmer of hope in that record, that the shootout win was the most recent game, played just 26 days ago. It caught the Sharks on the upswing, which is where they started these playoffs. It is reasonable to put more stock in the April 4th game than in the February 6th game, but those six goals have to be in the back of the Sharks’ minds. While the Kings are generally considered a more offensively loaded team than the Predators, the Kings that the Sharks played were not as they were a couple of seasons ago.
Colin Wilson and Shea Weber led the Preds in the first round with five points each. Goal scoring was pretty spread out, with Wilson, Weber, James Neal and Mattias Ekholm each scoring two goals. Six other skaters, including Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen scored goals against the Ducks. Forsberg and Johansen were both scoring at a good clip during the regular season so they bear watching. Defenseman Roman Josi was second in points during the regular season and he had three against the Ducks.
Craig Smith also scored a goal for the Predators, but missed two games and most of a third with an injury. The Predators did not win the games he missed. He was third on the team in goals scored with 21 in the regular season. He played the last two games in the Ducks series without much of a drop in minutes, so the Sharks can probably expect to see him on Friday.
The Sharks had more points as a group, though they played two fewer games than Nashville did. Brent Burns had eight points in the first round, with Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture collecting six apiece. Patrick Marleau and Joel Ward each had four and Joonas Donskoi and Joe Thornton each had three. That last one is a surprise, and Nashville will probably pay as much attention to Thornton as the Kings did to keep his numbers low.
Donskoi could also be considered a surprise, but a happy one for Sharks fans. His playoff performance might be attributed to a couple of things.Donskoi was a consistent points producer all season, and his time in the Finnish league cannot be overlooked. It could not have been assumed that his MVP performance in the Finnish playoffs would translate to success in the NHL playoffs, but it was a strong possibility.
Another factor that benefitted Donskoi is the fact that the Kings did not have the depth to match the Sharks. Do the Predators? Can they keep Joe Thornton in check and also stay on top of Donskoi, and for that matter, the likes of Chris Tierney, Melker Karlsson and Matt Nieto? Those three scored goals against the Kings. I don’t believe the Predators will have an easy time of it keeping all of the Sharks shooters off the board.
How successful will they be against the Sharks defense? The Sharks gave up almost as many goals as they scored in the first round. In total, they scored 16 and gave up 11, which does not seem that close unless you look at it in goals per game, where there is a difference of just one: 3.2 goals for and 2.2 goals against. One goal is enough to win the game but it leaves little margin for error.
The Sharks’ power play was pretty good against the Kings, at 23.8%. Their penalty kill was nothing to sneeze at, with a 78.6% success rate, but the Predators penalty kill was better. Nashville’s power play success was tiny, at 3.8%, but their penalty kill chugged along at 84% against the Ducks’ formidable power play.
The Predators scored a miniscule 0.13 more goals than they gave up in the regular season. In the first round, their numbers dipped into the negative as they scored 14 goals but gave up 18.
This is the challenge for the Sharks, to ignore what happened in the first round. The team with the most goals wins, but somehow the Predators turned that rule on its head. Obviously, the numbers are explained by a couple of bad losses that skewed the averages. That would be the second and third games where they lost by three goals both times. They also won one by 3-0, and then, like the Sharks, usually won by a single goal.
I think the Sharks’ offensive depth will again be their best asset. That is always a safe bet, but with a stifling defensive opponent like the Predators, nothing is certain.