Jets may have Nashville pegged
April 24, 2018 3:00 AM
by Ian Cameron
Starting the week we were still awaiting the Eastern Conference side of the second round NHL Stanley Cup Playoff puzzle but the two matchups are set for the next round on the Western Conference side of the equation.
The Presidents Trophy-winning and defending Western Conference champion Nashville Predators will take on the Winnipeg Jets while the remarkable Vegas Golden Knights will face the San Jose Sharks and look to upend a second consecutive California team in the postseason.
Due to the convoluted playoff format the NHL employs, which insists on divisional rivalries above all else, Nashville and Winnipeg, two Central Division combatants, will be forced to do battle here in the second round instead of the West Finals in spite of the fact the Predators and Jets finished the regular season 1st and 2nd respectively in points in the Western Conference.
Even though we are getting this series one round earlier than we should, it still should make for some incredibly competitive and exciting hockey between these two teams. Nashville was 3-1-1 in the regular season series against Winnipeg with Nashville winning 5-3, 6-5 and 3-1 and Winnipeg earning 5-4 and 6-4 wins in the season series.
The Jets will come in on the heels of a dominant five-game series victory over the Minnesota Wild, earning the franchise its first ever playoff series win. Winnipeg is a lethal scoring team that can throw four lines of quality offensive depth at any foe. Eleven different players had multi-point efforts for Winnipeg in their first round series win against Minnesota. Connor Hellebuyck was terrific in net for Winnipeg registering a strong 1.93 GAA and .924 save percentage in the opening round.
However, it was a rough time of it for him facing Nashville during the regular season. Hellebuyck had a 3.91 GAA and .882 save percentage in four games against the Predators allowing 4-plus goals in each of his four starts facing Nashville. Nashville has one of the league’s best top four defensemen with P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis leading a strong blue line for the Predators, but Winnipeg’s more underrated defense got much better as the season progressed and arguably played their best late in the season and continued that form into their first round series victory.
Jacob Trouba, Josh Morrissey, Dustin Byfuglien and Tyler Myers are all playing well and can likely give Nashville’s top four blue liners a run for their $$, which will be one of the keys in this very evenly matched series.
The other Western Conference second round matchup features the local team as the Vegas Golden Knights battle the San Jose Sharks. Both teams will be fresh and well rested following four-game sweeps of their respective opening round series. The Vegas Golden Knights used their four line speed and depth to their advantage in powering their way past the Los Angeles Kings in four straight games.
The Kings tried to turn the series into a physical grinder but the Golden Knights were simply too fast and too skilled for the Kings to handle. Vegas showed a tremendous ability to score goals this season as evidenced by their 3.3 goals per game scored during the season, ranking them 5th in the NHL in scoring, but the question was could they defend at a playoff caliber level and get strong goaltending in the playoffs that is vital to success in the postseason? I think they answered that question loudly and clearly.
Marc-Andre Fleury was dazzling in the crease for Vegas posting a sparkling 0.65 GAA and .977 save percentage in the four games against LA. There is no doubt the more potent San Jose four-line attack will be a much sterner test for the Vegas Golden Knights defensively and for Fleury in net but the Golden Knights displayed a solid defensive mentality in the first round and if they continue to bring that level of responsibility and awareness at the defensive end of the ice, the incredible season for Vegas has a good chance to keep on going for a while longer.
San Jose’s ability to keep the puck out was also very strong in their series as the Sharks held the Anaheim Ducks to a grand total of four goals in the four games in their sweep. San Jose became a much better offensive team in the second half of the season. The Sharks have scored 3-plus goals in five of their last six games entering this series. Eight players for the Sharks collected at least three points in their series against the Ducks, led by Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, Tomas Hertl, Evander Kane and Marcus Sorenson.
Kane has had a revitalization in his career since being traded midseason from Buffalo to San Jose. Vegas has a very underrated blue line that plays well collectively despite not having one dominant Norris Trophy winning defenseman. Nate Schmidt, Shea Theodore, Brayden McNabb, Deryk Engelland, Jon Merrill and Colin Miller have all been solid and have provided good continuity on the back end for Gerard Gallant’s team. William Karlsson, James Neal and Jonathan Marchessault lead the way up front offensively.
There may be some value on Overs in this series from a betting perspective with game totals likely to be 5 after both Vegas and San Jose feasted on some pedestrian offensive teams in the opening round. I expect both of these teams to be tested a lot more at the defensive end in this upcoming second round series. From a side perspective, I’m not willing to sell Vegas short at all and the extended rest should help them here. Vegas was 3-0-1 in the four regular season meetings against San Jose and if they can duplicate that success, great days for hockey fans in Vegas.