At first glance, Anaheim-Nashvilee may not seem like an exciting series or certainly one which will get a lot of prime time coverage. However, the matchup of the Ducks and the Predators presents a very interesting contrast of styles.
The Ducks are an offensive team with the best top line in hockey at the moment. The Predators are a defensive stalwart that relies on depth over top talent to ice a squad on a budget. The Predators are the unappreciated perennial playoff team while the Ducks are everyone's favorite surging squad over the final quarter of the season.
The series also presents an interesting subplot in that it pits a team built on possession against a team riding the percentages.
Anaheim Offense vs. Nashville Defense
Anaheim Ducks Offense: +11.0 GVT (Rank: 11th in NHL)
Nashville Predators Defense: +7.5 GVT (Rank: 11th in NHL)
Nashville Predators Goaltending: +23.2 GVT (Rank: 3rd in NHL)
Total: Anaheim Ducks, -19.7 GVT
The Ducks aren't a very good possession team. Their even-strength shot percentage (with the score close) ranges from 44.5% to 46.5% depending on which metric we use. This doesn't bode well for their offense over an extended period of time unless their top offensive players continue to be “hot”. Given that Nashville gave up only 194 goals on the season (2nd in the NHL), it will take every bit of skill Anaheim has to score consistently.
A lot has been made of Anaheim's top line of Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Bobby Ryan. Perry topped the NHL with 50 goals on the season and has scored 20 of them in his last 21 games. The 25-year-old veteran definitely put himself into the conversation for the Hart Trophy with such a strong run. Perry wasn't the only Anaheim forward who had a fine season, though. Both Getzlaf and the ageless Teemu Selanne topped a point per game, while Bobby Ryan notched 34 goals of his own. The issue is with depth. Outside of those four, there isn't another forward on the roster that notches points at the rate of a top six forward. So if Nashville can even play the top line to a draw, they've likely won the battle.
However, as if to augment their lack of forward depth, the Ducks possess two very good offensive defensemen in ex-Oiler Lubomir Visnovsky and rookie Cam Fowler. Visnovsky led all NHL defensemen in points (68) and GVT (19.2), while Fowler chipped in another 40 points from the blue line.
If that matchup wasn't already a contrast of two styles, the Predators are capable of icing an excellent pair of defensemen to neutralize the Getzlaf-Perry-Ryan line: first pairing blueliners Shea Weber and Ryan Suter are used to playing against the opposition's best players and frequently start shifts in the defensive zone (zone starts of approximately 45%). Both players slot into the top 30 for GVT among defensemen and Weber's size could be an asset in dealing with the physical nature of all three Anaheim players. Preds defenseman Kevin Klein also ranked as the 23rd-best defensive player in the NHL according to GVT. His presence gives head coach Barry Trotz one more blueliner to throw out against Selanne's line in order to cover all his matchup fears.
Nashville's most important player, however, resides between the pipes. Pekka Rinne may actually be the most important player in this series. Rinne's 36.5 GVT was the second-highest in the NHL behind only Tim Thomas and he may just challenge for the Vezina Trophy as well. And given that Rinne's even-strength save percentage over the last three seasons has been .926, .925 and .932, it's highly unlikely that this was just a lucky year. The guy is a wall, pure and simple.
Advantage: Nashville Predators
Nashville Offense vs. Anaheim Defense
Nashville Predators Offense: -11.0 GVT (Rank: 23rd in NHL)
Anaheim Ducks Defense: -13.2 GVT (Rank: 25th in NHL)
Anaheim Ducks Goaltending: +4.6 GVT (Rank: 14th in NHL)
Total: Nashville Predators, -2.4 GVT
This is more the situation of pitting weakness against weakness. The Predators didn't have a single forward who scored more than 50 points. They do, however, have solid depth at the forward position. They essentially have three lines worth of forwards scoring at a top six rate. Martin Erat, David Legwand, Sergei Kostitsyn, Patric Hornqvist, Colin Wilson, Jordin Tootoo and ex-Senator Mike Fisher can all provide secondary offense. Throwing in a good two-way player like Joel Ward means the Predators have a very balanced, if far from dominant, attack.
The Ducks feature the player with the best defensive GVT in the NHL. Former Sabre Toni Lydman has been a rock on the Ducks blue line and has been one of the few defensive stalwarts for coach Randy Carlyle. I praised Lydman as a free agent signing from the summer, and think he still is the Ducks' best hope to keep their goals against down. Unfortunately, against a team like Nashville whose scoring is well-distributed, it will be hard to deploy him in a shutdown role.
While Anaheim started out the season looking solid in goal, the health problems of Jonas Hiller have been devastating. Hiller only played in 49 games, yet is still second on the Ducks in GVT. His even-strength save percentage of .931 this season really made up for some of the team's tendency to get outshot. The return of Ray Emery from injury seemed to plug the hole in the roster until he was reinjured. Now, the team is relying on Dan Ellis to start in the playoffs. While Ellis has logged a solid ES Save % of .922 in 13 games for Anaheim, he boasted a miserable .897 in 31 appearances with Tampa Bay earlier this season. His career mark is somewhere between the two, but he's hardly the player Hiller is.
Advantage: Let's call it a draw
Anaheim Power Play vs. Nashville Penalty Kill
Anaheim Ducks Power Play: +15.4 GVT (Rank: 4th in NHL)
Nashville Predators Penalty Kill: +6.6 GVT (Rank: 8th in NHL)
Total: Anaheim Ducks, +8.8 GVT
Anaheim converted on 23.5% of power play opportunities, which was good for third in the league. Perry, Getzlaf, Selanne, Fowler and Visnovsky all had racked up more than 4.7 points per 60 with the man advantage. Selanne in particular was an absolute assassin with a point rate over 7.
Nashville ranked fifth in the league in penalty kill rate at 84.9%. They appear to use two full "kill squads", utilizing Weber, Suter, Klein and Shane O'Brien on defense. The forwards are spread out a little more but Legwand and Ward tend to back up Jared Smithson and Nick Spaling.
Advantage: Anaheim Ducks
Nashville Power Play vs. Anaheim Penalty Kill
Nashville Predators Power Play: -3.1 GVT (Rank: 18th in NHL)
Anaheim Ducks Penalty Kill: -2.2 GVT (Rank: 22nd in NHL)
Total: Nashville Predators, -0.9 GVT
Nashville converted on only 15.2% of all power play chances during the regular season. This is pretty unfortunate for the Predators since the Ducks spend a lot of time killing penalties—only six teams in the playoffs spent more time per game shorthanded than the Ducks. Erat and Kostitsyn were both quite effective on the power play this season, but very few others even cracked the "adequate" barrier.
The Ducks killed off 81.3% of all their shorthanded situations, but this was definitely not their strong suit. Todd Marchant, Toni Lydman, Andreas Lilja and Saku Koivu were the primary specialists but are far from the NHL's elite at this role.
Advantage: Like two people throwing "scissors" repeatedly and never going "rock" (i.e. a tie)
The Predators won three of the four head-to-head matches with the Ducks this season. The combined score for the games was 17-11, indicating that we could be in for a high-scoring affair between these two teams. It should also be noted that the Predators won two of those games in the second half of the year, during Anaheim's incredible hot streak that vaulted them to fourth place in the West.
Advantage: Nashville Predators
Injuries and Intangibles
Anaheim's goalie injuries are a serious concern. Not many teams would be comfortable riding their third string goaltender through the playoffs, and the Ducks are no exception.
On the other hand, the Predators are without the services of forwards Steve Sullivan, Marcel Goc and Matthew Lombardi for the duration of the playoffs. With those players in the lineup, Nashville could roll four lines against any team. Without them, they're still solid through the first three lines, but not nearly as formidable.
The Ducks have been one of the hottest teams in the NHL leading up to the postseason, but we also know that one of the greatest predictors of future success is to outshoot the opposition, which they haven't done.
Anaheim Ducks: +4.0 GVT (Rank: 18th in NHL)
Nashville Predators: +25.0 GVT (Rank: 9th in NHL)
Total: Nashville Predators, +21.0 GVT
Conventional wisdom says the hot team is the most likely to win. Statistical analysis says that the full season is a better predictor than just the past 20 games. So despite the fact that Anaheim has legitimate Hart and Norris Trophy candidates on their team, I'm still picking the team that Carrie Underwood loves.
Nashville Predators in six games
Ryan Popilchak is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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