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2018 NHL First-Round Playoff Preview: Colorado Avalanche vs. Nashville Predators

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2018 NHL First-Round Playoff Preview: Colorado Avalanche vs. Nashville Predators

Nathan MacKinnon and P.K. Subban. Author: (Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images)

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2018 NHL First-Round Playoff Preview: Colorado Avalanche vs. Nashville Predators

The Hockey News
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Colorado Avalanche vs. Nashville Predators: How They Win & How They Lose, 5 Things To Watch, THN Series Prediction and Playoff Depth Charts.

What a role reversal for the Nashville Predators. A year ago, they crept into the playoffs as the No. 16 overall seed and stunned the favored Chicago Blackhawks with a sweep, starting a magical run to the Stanley Cup final. Plucky underdogs no more, the Preds are fresh off their first Presidents’ Trophy. Many publications – including us – picked them to win the Stanley Cup. Will the brand-new weight of expectation affect them? Or will Smashville steamroll Colorado in Round 1? The Avs are top heavy, but what a top they have. Few players were more dominant than Nathan MacKinnon this season, and he forms one of the NHL’s elite lines with Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen.

COLORADO AVALANCHE
How They Win: The Avalanche pulled off the near impossible this season. They traded a franchise stalwart for futures and still managed to get better. And therein lies the strength of this roster. Part of it has been the bond developed by taking Matt Duchene, a player who clearly didn’t want to be in Colorado, out of the room. Chemistry can create a very deep esprit de corps, and the Avs have embraced their collective identity. They’ve learned to trust coach Jared Bednar’s aggressive push-the-pace system. It’s a lot easier to play that way when you’re young, and it’s easy to continue when you have success. The Avs aren’t afraid to use their youth and speed to their advantage, in part because they boast an improved defense corps. MacKinnon, one of the top Hart Trophy contenders, has benefitted most from being given the green light to exploit his speed game.

How They Lose: Gumption can only go so far until reality sets in, as evidenced by the fact the Avs have lost 10 straight games to Nashville. There’s a reason for that. The Avs have a tough time against teams that can put the clamps on their speed. Colorado isn’t a particularly big team, and running into big teams is sometimes tantamount to hitting a brick wall. And much the way it was when the Avs made the playoffs four years ago, they are not a very good possession team. The Avs are particularly light in the shot attempts category, largely because they don’t have the puck enough. That puts a strain on their defense corps and goaltenders – even more so when No. 1 D-man Erik Johnson and No. 1 netminder Semyon Varlamov are out for the series.

NASHVILLE PREDATORS
How They Win: With enviable scoring balance, a blueline corps that is without peer in the NHL and one of the league’s elite goaltenders. Seems pretty simple when you put it that way, doesn’t it? Those of you who can locate a discernible weakness in this lineup should let the rest of the hockey world know what it is, because it would save people a lot of trouble. There was a time when the Predators forged an identity as a small-market, hardworking team that used effort and character to make up for its shortcomings in talent. Those days are long gone. Coach Peter Laviolette’s Preds are one of the most explosive offensive teams in the NHL, and what makes them most impressive is they’ve improved by light years offensively without abandoning their commitment to the defensive side of the game. No team can come close to equalling the top four of Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm and P.K. Subban on defense.

How They Lose: Nashville is one of the most penalized teams in the league, albeit its penalty kill is solidly above average. In many games it takes the Preds a period to find their legs, then they dominate in the middle frame. The Predators bolstered their roster down the middle when they persuaded Mike Fisher to come out of retirement, but they still don’t have that big, dominant No. 1 pivot who drives possession and creates a ton of offense. But who’s kidding whom? We’re really nitpicking here. These guys don’t lose very often.

Five Things To Watch

1. Star power versus depth at forward. MacKinnon is the best forward on either team by a mile, and Rantanen is probably the second best. The lone edge Colorado has in this series is elite star power up front. Unfortunately, Landeskog, MacKinnon and Rantanen accounted for 93 of the 214 goals scored by Avs forwards in 2017-18. That’s 43.5 percent from three players. Secondary weapons such as Alexander Kerfoot have to step up. Meanwhile, the Predators field the opposite – nearly unrivalled depth at forward. Eeli Tolvanen, one of the game’s absolute best offensive prospects, will have to fight tooth and nail just to find a spot on the fourth line, for example. The Preds are much more than goal scorers Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson. They can deploy highly effective two-way forwards such as Nick Bonino, Ryan Hartman and Colton Sissons in their bottom six. That’s just unfair.

2. Can Pekka Rinne replicate last year’s playoff magic? Rinne was legendary in Round 1 against Chicago last post-season, allowing three goals combined in four games, and he was a force all the way to the final. He struggled mightily on the road against the Penguins in the final, however. But this season, in which Rinne has likely put together a Vezina Trophy-winning campaign, he’s also been a beast on the road. If he can shake that playoff homesickness, he’s a Conn Smythe Trophy frontrunner.

3. Presidents’ Trophy syndrome. Is the league’s best regular season record a curse? Only eight of 32 Presidents’ Trophy winners (25 percent) have gone on to win the Cup. And 13 of 32 (40.5 percent) have bowed out by the end of Round 2. Is there any chance the Preds have lost focus? They played .500 hockey over their last 10 games. Meanwhile, Colorado was battling for a post-season berth right down to the season’s final weekend and comes in hungry. No first-overall team has choked in Round 1 since 2012, though.

4. Who steps up for Erik Johnson? The big, sturdy Johnson led the team in minutes, and his 3:40 of shorthanded ice time per game was second in the entire NHL. Losing him in late March to a fractured kneecap is a huge blow to the league’s fourth-ranked penalty kill. Colorado still has the underrated Tyson Barrie to move the puck, but who steps up to be the defensive rock? Hulking Nikita Zadorov has his work cut out for him against such a deep and high-motor group of Nashville forecheckers.

5. Ryan Johansen, No. 1 center? RyJo’s $8-million cap hit says he’s a high-end No. 1 center, as he earns the eighth-most money at his position, but he’s ranks 30th among centers in points since the start of last season. The road to the Cup means outduelling some combination of MacKinnon, Mark Scheifele, William Karlsson, Anze Kopitar and so on. Can Johansen be The Guy? He was acquired for Seth Jones for that purpose. Johansen has been more of a B+ than an A+ since coming to Nashville – though he was excellent in the 2017 playoffs. Don’t count him out yet.

THN Series Prediction: Predators in five.

LINE COMBOS, DEFENSE PAIRINGS & GOALIES

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2018 NHL First-Round Playoff Preview: Colorado Avalanche vs. Nashville Predators