Dallas Stars (4) at Nashville Predators (1)
Regular Season Record: Dallas 43-32-7 (93 points) Nashville 47-29-6 (100 points)
Head to Head Record: Nashville won 5 game series 3-2
Nashville enters the playoffs talented enough to emerge from the Western Conference as the playoff representative. The Predators did not play up to their full potential this season, but claimed the Division title the last week of the season. Nashville dropped from 53 wins in 2017-18 to 47 in 2018-19 plummeting from 117 total points to 100 this year. The Predators attempted to energize their team at the trade deadline adding Forwards Mikael Granlund and Wayne Simmonds, but the team did not gel into a fully cohesive unit. The Preds need a big series from wingers Viktor Arvidsson and Filip Forsberg to get by the defensive minded Dallas Stars.
The Stars were an enigma at times this year due to an inability to score goals. Early in the year, Jim Lites, the team’s CEO caused a tidal wave of controversy stating that his two best players were “f------ horse----. A public rant of this nature shocked the Dallas hockey community as Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn are long time Stars and fan favorites. Seguin and Benn, both excellent players, shook off the comments, leading Dallas to the top Wild Card spot in the Western Conference. The front line duo scores with the best units in hockey when pushing the puck up the ice. Seguin spent the early season nailing the crossbar, but righted himself to hit the 80 point total, his most since his first year in Big D. Many casual fans may not realize that Jamie Benn has totaled one more point than Alex Ovechkin over the past 5 years. The Stars two top players must be on their game to beat the Division Champs.
The Nashville front line played well all season, but they do not have dynamic scorers. Viktor Arvidsson led the Predators with 34 goals, a franchise record, but this number only ties him for 25th in the NHL. Arvidsson missed 24 games this season due to an upper body injury limiting his production for the club. Fliip Forsberg chipped in 28 goals, but was sidelined for 18 games due to injury. Arvidsson and Forsberg’s injuries contributed to the underwhelming performance out of Nashville this season. Forsberg elevates the play of the entire squad when he is in the lineup and is a major key for their success against Dallas. Ryan Johansen is the leading assist man for Nashville with 50, placing him in the top 15 centers in the league in this category. Nashville needs to get Simmonds and Granlund operating efficiently to win the series. Goal scoring against the Stars is going to be at a premium and they must to be involved early in the offensive zone.
The Stars offense is going to go as far as Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn take them in the playoffs. Neither of the Stars top performers had their best season in 2018-19, but if focused for the postseason the duo will be hard to stop. Seguin knocked home 33 goals to Benn’s 27, but neither of them sniffed the NHL leaderboard for total points this year. Thankfully, the Stars benefited from strong seasons by Alexander Radulov (29 goals, 43 assists) and Radek Faksa (15,15) propelling them to the Wild Card. The Stars major acquisition at the trade deadline was Mats Zuccarello. The former New York Ranger, Zuccarello immediately energized the Stars in his first game before sustaining a broken arm and missing all but the last week with his new employer. The veteran Norwegian electrified a lagging Stars attack and Dallas was a different team with Zuccarello on ice. The club had difficulties scoring on the road this year, but if aging Jason Spezza squeezes one last playoff series out of his body- it may be enough to push them past Nashville.
Nashville relies on Sweden’s Mattias Ekholm and the rugged Canadian P.K. Subban to shut down opponents. Ryan Ellis is the third member of a group that makes scoring goals difficult for the other team. While this trio of defenseman are shutting the opposition down in front of the net, Roman Josi triggers breakouts from the defensive zone. Josi has 41 assists to go along with 15 goals this season from his position ranking him in the top 15 in points from the defensive side.
Nashville drafted Pekka Rinne in the 8th round of the 2004 NHL draft. The veteran goalie followed up his Vezina Trophy with a solid, but unspectacular season. Rinne ranks 12th in save percentage among goalies with over 20 games played this season. Rinne can stop opponents from scoring as shown by his 2.42 goals against average this season. Rinne may allow a soft goal to cross the line occasionally, but more than makes up for this with a 14.89 GSAA on high danger shots. Nashville’s backup netminder Juuse Saros has played hard when Rinne needs a night off. I do not believe Rinne sits out a game in this series, but Saros can steal a game while in net.
The backline in Dallas has been as strong as the old Cowboys Doomsday Defense in the 70’s. Either Esa Lindell or Miro Heiskanen can trigger hockey’s version of a fast break with their passing ability. Blake Comeau provides a physical presence once the opponents get into the defensive zone. The Stars defenders establish a brick wall around the net contributing to a league low 84 high danger goals against.
The Stars employ the best netminding rotation in the NHL this year outside of New York. Ben Bishop is a playoff tested veteran who backstopped the Tampa Bay Lightning to a Cup finals. His 93.4% save percentage and 32.16 goals saved above average have given him a more than even shot at winning the Vezina Trophy. Anton Khudobin is more than capable of standing in for Bishop if necessary. Khudobin allowed 2.57 goals on average this year with 15.96 GSAA. The Texas team can rely on each goalie to shutdown the Predators offense. Their play enables the Stars to win a low scoring game in Nashville switching the home ice advantage in their favor.
Nashville won the season series 3-2 in what is becoming a fierce rivalry in the Central Division. The Predators secured home ice for the series, but the teams are so familiar with each other, the advantage is slightly diminished. The Stars have not scored a ton of goals on the road this year which may hurt them while visiting the Music City. However- the Stars should not feel like underdogs at the start of the series. The goaltending tandem of Bishop and Khudobin can blank an average Nashville offense. Mats Zuccarello and the energy he brings to the Stars tips the balance in Dallas’ favor. Time to go against the chalk- Dallas steals a victory in Nashville and wins the series at home in Game 6. Stars advance 4 wins to 2.
Line as of 4/9: