by Thomas Willis @TomAWillis / Digital Manager & Producer – Nashville Predators
Both the Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues raced through their Round One series in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and now the Central Division rivals will meet in the postseason for the first time ever.
The No. 3 and No. 4 finishers in the division, the Preds and Blues dominated their opponents – the Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild, respectively – en route to pulling off upsets in the First Round. Rivals for close to 20 years, the two clubs will now square off in a best-of-seven series that will begin in St. Louis sometime next week (with the schedule to be announced at a later date).
In the interim, let’s dive into the clubs’ five-game, regular-season series, four things that will define the playoff matchup and X-factors for both teams.
Season Series Refresh:
Nashville’s regular-season record versus St. Louis: 3-2-0
Goals: Nashville: Mike Fisher, Filip Forsberg, Calle Jarnkrok, Ryan Johansen, James Neal, Mike Ribeiro (2); St. Louis: David Perron, Vladimir Tarasenko (2)
Assists: Nashville: Filip Forsberg, Mike Ribeiro, Colin Wilson (3); St. Louis: Vladimir Tarasenko (3)
Points: Nashville: Filip Forsberg, Mike Ribeiro (5); St. Louis: Vladimir Tarasenko (5)
November 10, 2016, at Bridgestone Arena: Predators 3, Blues 1
After the Blues grabbed an early 1-0 lead, Calle Jarnkrok bookended the game-winning goal from James Neal with his second and third tallies of the campaign.
First, Colin Wilson threw a backhand feed into the slot where Jarnkrok rifled a shot by former Preds goaltender Carter Hutton at 18:26 of the second. Later, Neal and Jarnkrok both found twine in a 66-second span, with No. 18 netting the winning score by receiving a feed in tight and lifting it high over Hutton.
“It feels good,” Captain Mike Fisher, who returned from a three-game absence, said. “It was a big game against a really good team, and we got better as the game went on. It was a big win for us.
“We’re starting to play the way we know we can play. We’re just playing a lot better. We still feel like there’s room to improve in a lot of areas. It’s definitely a good sign that we’re finding ways to get points, and it’s nice to get a couple in a row.”
November 19, 2016, at Scottrade Center: Blues 3, Predators 1
Nine days after dropping a 3-1 contest in Nashville, the Blues returned the favor in their own barn.
A 1-1 score held until late in regulation when Kyle Brodziak scored with less than 13 minutes remaining in regulation. Four minutes later, Vladimir Tarasenko recorded his first of a team-leading two goals during the season series.
In an interesting note, this contest was the only matchup in the five-game season series that both teams’ No. 1 goalies, Jake Allen and Pekka Rinne, started and finished a game (Allen was pulled twice, while backup Juuse Saros started two games for Nashville and Carter Hutton did once for St. Louis).
“I thought we were good for two periods,” Nashville Head Coach Peter Laviolette said. “They seemed to grab some momentum off of that power play to open the third period, and shortly after that, we just couldn’t seem to corral it. They gained some momentum… to start the third and we just couldn’t get going.”
“It was a close, tight game,” defenseman Roman Josi said. “It’s always tight games against St. Louis, not a lot of room out there. It was close, and they played better in the third.”
December 13, 2016, at Bridgestone Arena: Predators 6, Blues 3
Perhaps the most dramatic comeback of the Predators 2016-17 season, Nashville rallied from a three-goal deficit by scoring six unanswered goals.
Now on the Preds roster after being claimed on waivers, Brad Hunt’s first career goal put St. Louis up 3-0, less than two minutes into the second period. Roughly two minutes later, the comeback began in earnest, however, as James Neal netted his second of the season series with a wrister off the faceoff.
Filip Forsberg cut the deficit again, to 3-2, before the middle frame was out, and in the third, Mike Fisher scored twice, along with goals from Ryan Johansen and Mike Ribeiro.
“I think when it swung back the other way – and it was clearly evident – was James Neal’s goal just to get us on the board and get us going in the right direction,” Preds Head Coach Peter Laviolette said. “From that point, I thought our guys did an excellent job of playing the way we want to play.”
“It’s huge, confidence-wise,” forward Colton Sissons said. “We were coming in confident at home with a pretty solid record, but to have a comeback win like that against a team like the St. Louis Blues is huge for us.”
December 30, 2016 at Scottrade Center: Predators 4, Blues 0
The division rivals played another pair of closely grouped contests to end 2016, facing each other 17 days after Nashville’s 6-3 win in Music City.
It was rookie goaltender Juuse Saros and the goal-of-the-year by Viktor Arvidsson that defined Nashville’s shut out of St. Louis on the road. Saros made 25 saves to preserve a three-goal outburst in the second period for the Preds and kept the door shut for the first blank sheet of his career.
Late in the second period, Arvidsson pulled the puck back between his skates, while using speed to beat Jay Bouwmeester and then tucked the puck around Jake Allen. If the 3-0 lead for Nashville wasn’t enough to set the tone for the rest of the contest, Arvidsson’s goal was.
“I’ve tried it before in practices and stuff, some games, but I haven’t been able to put it in the net,” Arvidsson told NHL.com. “So it was nice to see it go in. I just felt I had a little more speed than the [defense]. That was it.”
“I think we just played a really smart game,” said Saros. “I think it really gives us hope in the future and kind of shows just what kind of team we are, so it’s a big thing.”
For the second consecutive meeting, the Preds chased Blues netminder Jake Allen.
April 2, 2017 at Scottrade Center: Blues 4, Predators 1
The final regular-season contest between the Preds and Blues likely holds more value than some of the others, due to it being the clubs’ only meeting in the last four months and it standing as the only time the Blues faced Nashville under new head coach Mike Yeo.
After Ken Hitchcock was fired on Feb. 1, Yeo ramped up the Blues’ emphasis on defense, guiding the club to 22-8-2 record down the stretch and third place in the Central Division.
Juuse Saros was in net for Nashville, who was playing their second game in two days. Ryan Johansen tallied with the Preds on a 5-on-3 power play to even the contest at one prior to the close of the first.
The Blues struck twice in the middle frame to take the lead for good and used the two points gained in the standings to ensure they finished one spot ahead of the Preds in the final season standings.
“I thought we played hard,” Preds Head Coach Peter Laviolette said. “The chances were in our favor, shots in our favor, made a couple mistakes… couple of mistakes or tough bounces and the game doesn’t go our way. There’s a lot of numbers that do go our way tonight, just not the scoreboard. I thought our guys played hard in the back-to-back situation.”
Moment of the Series: Dec. 30, 2016
It’s already been talked about once, but Viktor Arvidsson’s highlight-reel goal has to be the top image from the five-game season series.
Arvidsson’s move around a Blues’ d-man before depositing the puck into the back of the net helped put the energetic forward on the map – outside of just Nashville. Thirty-one goals for Arvidsson tied him for the Preds lead in the regular season, and two more in the playoffs (so far) has done the very same thing.
Game of the Series: A three-goal comeback? Yes, that will do.
Nashville erased a 3-0 advantage for St. Louis when Mike Fisher’s first of two on the night found twine at 9:02 of the third for a 4-3 lead. Impressively, the three-goal comeback was not the Preds only example of the season, Nashville also rallied from three down to defeat the Stars, 5-3, on Feb. 12 at Bridgestone Arena.
Wins like that can serve as a rallying cry, and it’s possible the Preds comeback win on Dec. 13 even helped affect the outcome of their game against the Blues on Dec. 30.
It’s a small sample size, but the Preds have trailed just once so far in this postseason, a two-goal deficit they recovered from in Game Three (a 3-2 win in overtime).
Series Analysis: Four Things
New Coach: The 2016-17 campaign is one of two halves for the St. Louis Blues.
Previously two wins away from the 2016 Stanley Cup Final, a 24-21-5 record on Feb. 1 wasn’t good enough for Ken Hitchcock to finish out his sixth season behind the bench in St. Louis.
Enter associate coach Mike Yeo, who most recently had the lead job in Minnesota, and the Blues have looked like a very different team down the final two months of the regular season. Add in the Blues defensive domination of Yeo’s old club in Round One, and it would appear Nashville and St. Louis are looking at a lot of future one-goal games in their series.
Since Yeo took over in St. Louis, the Blues are allowing less than two goals a game on average, a mark that’s No. 1 in the NHL. Before that, they were giving up more than 3.1 goals per game.
Team Game: The Predators sweep of the No. 1 seeded Blackhawks in Round One is currently the story of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. How Nashville so effectively shut down the Hawks’ stars probably shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise.
The Preds’ top-four defensemen (Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm and P.K. Subban) did a brilliant job of forcing Chicago to the outside in the offensive zone and rarely allowed the opposition a second-chance opportunity. Josi and Ellis also chipped in timely scoring with Josi scoring twice in Game Four and Ellis burying the game-winner in Game Two.
Still, it’s been a five-man system that’s helped these four stars on the blue line keep the puck out of the net. Players like Colton Sissons, Austin Watson and Mike Fisher have helped front the attack up toward the blue line and in the neutral zone and the results have been stunning. In four playoff games, Nashville has given up one 5-on-5 goal (three total), including two shutouts.
“I’ve said it before, but I think as a team, we defend so well,” Preds goaltender Pekka Rinne said after Game Two. “They box out, let me see the puck, and tonight, there wasn’t probably one shot where I didn’t see it. The guys have been doing a really good job in front of me, and personally, [I’m] feeling good, just seeing the puck pretty good right now.”
Pekka Rinne: Yes, the Finnish netminder deserves his own section.
Rinne turned aside 123 of 126 shots in the Round One playoff series, for a gaudy stat line of a .976 save percentage and 0.70 goals-against average. Can Rinne maintain that kind of production? It may seem like an outlandish request, but his opponent for Round Two isn’t far behind.
Jake Allen has a .956 save percentage to go with a 1.47 goals-against average after his stellar performance (through four games) in the First Round. If Rinne stole Game One for Nashville (with a 29-save shutout), then Allen did the same against Minnesota, by making 51 saves in the Blues’ overtime triumph.
“He was amazing,” defenseman Josi said after Rinne’s Game One shutout. “What a great game by him. I thought we played pretty solid in the first, played a good first period, but after that they were all over us. Especially in the second, Peks made some unbelievable saves and he was great, not much more you can say.”
Offensive Wild Cards? With all the talk about defense, you may be surprised to hear the Preds and Blues each finished in the top half of League scoring during 2016-17.
Nashville averaged 2.90 goals per game (11th) through 82 regular-season games, while St. Louis was immediately behind them in the rankings (2.84 goals per game for 12th). The defensive gap isn’t much wider either, with the Blues ranking 13th (2.63 goals against per game) and the Preds 15th (2.68 goals against per game).
It may be reinforcements that swing the series for either team. For the Blues, Vladimir Sobotka has three points (1g-2a) in the playoffs after returning from the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) in April from a three-year absence. The forward left during the summer of 2014 to play with Avangard Omsk, but returned to St. Louis just before the end of the regular season and signed a three-year contract with the Blues.
The Blues may also get an added boost from top-center Paul Stastny, who returned from injury at the end of their First Round series against the Wild.
Likewise, Nashville is hoping to see the return of power forward Colin Wilson, who missed the entire Round One series with a lower-body injury. Wilson is yet to join the club for a team practice, but if he is able to take to the ice in Round Two, he would do so as one of the team’s most-proven postseason scorers.
Wilson paced the Preds with 13 points (5g-8a) during the 2016 playoffs and notched a team-high five goals in a 2015 Round One series versus the Chicago Blackhawks.
X-Factors: Special Teams (St. Louis) and First Line (Nashville)
The overall offensive and defensive numbers in the regular season are quite similar for the two teams – as was detailed above – but there’s a clear winner in the special teams edge.
The Blues registered a Top 10 power play and penalty kill during 2016-17, ranking third on the penalty kill (84.8 percent) and eighth on the power play (21.3 percent). In what’s likely to be such a tight series on the scoreboard and on the ice, can the Blues rely on their special teams to win them a game or two?
The JOFA line was very, very good for Nashville in Round One. When the Preds needed a goal late or wanted to hold a lead, Preds Head Coach Peter Laviolette looked no further than Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson.
The advanced analytics for the Preds first line were second-best in the NHL during the regular season and the trio didn’t slow down in Round One either. Johansen recorded at least one point in every playoff contest, while Forsberg and Arvidsson each scored twice.
Can they dominate against the Blues stout defensive front?
Despite being divisional rivals for close to 20 years, the Preds and Blues, who are celebrating their 50th season in the NHL, have never met previously in the playoffs. Neither franchise has a Stanley Cup title to their credit.
In last year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs, both clubs lost to the eventual Western Conference Champion San Jose Sharks. Nashville fell in seven games in Round Two, while St. Louis lost in six in the Western Conference Final.