The 2011 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs have resulted in a few firsts for the Nashville Predators.
Not only did they advance to the second round for the first time, but they also advanced to face the President’s Trophy Champion Vancouver Canucks for the first time in the playoffs. Most have written off the Predators chances in this series predicting a 4-1 series win by the Canucks with some even predicting sweeps.
Canucks fans should not be taking the Predators lightly however.
The Predators are arguably one of the most underrated teams in the NHL. Year in and year out, they find a way to make the playoffs in a tough Central Division that has both the Detroit Red Wing dynasty and Chicago Blackhawks in it.
They also have Pekka Rinne, a young and dynamic goaltender who established himself as one of the elite players at his position this past regular season. Rinne entered the 2011 playoffs ranked No. 2 overall in save percentage with .930 and No. 3 overall in GAA with 2.12 goals against.
As a result, he earned himself a Vezina Trophy for the NHL’s best goalie award this year.
In addition to their great goaltending, the Predators have a lot of depth at defense. Led by Shea Weber, the Predators do a great job at keeping quality shots on Rinne to a minimum. They are very responsible and rarely get caught pinching deep in the offensive zone.
The Predators coach Barry Trotz has always been defensive minded in his coaching philosophy and it is clearly reflected by his team.
The main concern when it comes to the Nashville Predators chances in this series is that of offensive production. There are question marks as to who can produce offense night in and night out especially against the league’s best defensive team in the Canucks who gave up the fewest goals in the NHL this season.
After a subpar season with the Predators after being acquired from the Ottawa Senators just before the trade deadline, Mike Fisher has finally emerged as what some analysts are now calling the Predators offensive leader. He has three goals so far in these 2011 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs. Other than Fisher, players such as Sergei Kostitsyn and David Legwand will be feeling the pressure to produce in this series.
The Predators know that goals are going to be hard to come by in this series and they can’t solely rely on three or four players to have all the offensive production.
The Vancouver Canucks come into this series riding a huge high after finally exercising the demons that are the Chicago Blackhawks. The Blackhawks, the team who has eliminated Vancouver from the playoffs each of the past two years, finally fell to the Canucks on Tuesday night losing in overtime 2-1 and losing the series 4-3 in seven games.
It is thought that now that the Canucks have gotten over their slump against the Blackhawks that the road to the finals should be a whole lot easier now. This may not be the case.
The Canucks struggled on nights to put any offense up on a rookie goaltender in Corey Crawford in their series versus Chicago. Albeit the Blackhawks have some of the best defenseman in all of hockey, the Canucks made it way too easy for Crawford and cannot take Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne lightly.
The Canucks must get all four forward lines rolling if they want to put up a lot of offense on Rinne. They have to get into the crowded region in front of Rinne and get pucks through to him. In addition, Canucks Selke nominee and second line centre Ryan Kesler has to get it going.
Kesler was one of the best players in the Canucks first round series versus Chicago, but the 41-goal scorer was unable to register a goal in the series. Kesler was chosen for the role of defending against another Selke nominee in Blackhawks captain Jonathon Toews and it clearly affected his offensive game.
Luckily for Kesler, the Predators don’t have any weapons offensively as talented as Toews and Kesler should be able to get his offensive game going in this series. Production from all lines is key to winning any playoff series. The speed on the third line of Hansen, Torres and Raymond will be huge against the Predators if the Canucks want secondary scoring. The fourth line of the Canucks of Oreskovich, Raffi Torres, and Tanner Glass just needs to keep the physical pressure up, and the chances will soon follow.
This series should be an interesting one for Vezina candidate and 2010 Olympic Gold Medal winning goaltender Roberto Luongo. Luongo said that winning game seven over Chicago meant more to him than winning the Gold Medal with Team Canada at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver last February.
The series with Nashville will prove if he is mentally tough enough now to take the Canucks all the way or if the demons we thought he exorcised after defeating the Blackhawks are still there. It is time for Luongo to really show what he has to offer.
Lastly, the Canucks need to come out flying. They need to hit like they did those first three games against Chicago, but sustain it the entire series.
It is clear that a physical presence for the Canucks provides a huge confidence boost as well as pumping the players up. If the Canucks can be physically responsible and stay out of the penalty box they will win this series.
Simply put, they are just better than the Predators in every aspect. Predators forward Mike Fisher put it best when he said the Canucks have no holes in their game.
Verdict: Canucks Win: 4-2