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April 28, 2011
NHL Playoffs, Second Round
Vancouver Canucks vs. Nashville Predators

by Kent Wilson

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After barely surviving the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round, the NHL's Presidents' Trophy winning Vancouver Canucks will face the relatively unheralded Nashville Predators, who advanced to the second round for the first time in franchise history by taking out the Anaheim Ducks. The Predators don't have the top-end talent of the Canucks, but their strong blueline, forward depth and solid coaching may prove to be a challenge to the prohibitive Stanley Cup favorites nonetheless.

Vancouver offense vs. Nashville defense

Vancouver Canucks offense: +34.0 GVT (Rank: 1st in NHL)
Nashville Predators defense: +7.5 GVT (Rank: 11th)
Nashville Predators goaltending: +23.2 (Rank: 3rd)
Total: Vancouver Canucks, +3.3 GVT

Despite boasting the most potent offense in the NHL this season, the Canucks don't have an obvious advantage here thanks to the Predators' combination of a capable defense and well above average goaltending. One of Nashville's biggest organizational strengths is their excellent blueline, anchored by Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. The former was nominated for the Norris Trophy this season and he is a deserving candidate. Weber routinely faces top-notch opposition, starts more often in the defensive end and moves the puck in the right direction. Suter, Weber's frequent partner, is nearly Weber's equal in terms of defensive ability, with the duo forming a very strong shutdown pairing.

The rest of the Predators back-end is made of solid veterans and improving youngsters. Kevin Klein proved to be ready for full time duty this season, facing middling competition with relative aplomb, while Cody Franson was reserved for more sheltered/offensive type duties. Shane O'Brien, Francis Boullon and Jonathon Blum round out the depth chart.

Up front, Barry Trotz makes up his lack of high-end offensive talent by absolutely burying guys like David Legwand, Joel Ward and Jerred Smithson. Each of those players saw zone starts south of 45% and were frequently played against other teams' top lines in order to give Nashville's scorers more of a chance in the offensive zone. Smithson mostly struggled in that role, putting up a Corsi deep underwater (-10.88/60), but Ward and Legwand both managed to be in the black and post positive GVT's despite the extreme difficulty of their minutes (+5.0 cumulatively).

Of course, the primary reason this isn't a gross mismatch is the goaltending of Pekka Rinne. The third year 'tender posted the second best personal GVT of any player this season behind Tim Thomas (+36.5 GVT), owing to his mind-blowing .930 save percentage.

Ironically, Rinne didn't have a very strong opening round with an .876 save percentage in six games—so in this case, his team won more in spite of his performance than because of it. That said, there's no chance Rinne, whose lowest single season save percentage in the NHL is .911, will continue to struggle to that degree. Expect to see him stop a lot more pucks in this round as a result.

The Canucks' attack is well known. The Sedin twins are a potent duo, made more dangerous by the fact that Alain Vigneault tends to shelter them behind Ryan Kesler (and when he was healthy, Manny Malholtra) as much as possible. The Sedins frequently start more often in the offensive zone as a result, with zone starts north of 70% (the highest in the entire league) facing off against second and third lines. Both talent and circumstances explain the brothers taking back-to-back Art Ross Trophies.

Of course, the Canucks offense doesn't stop with the twins. Kesler is not only one of the best shutdown centers in the league, but he can also do damage in the offensive zone. Add in Mason Raymond, Mikael Samulesson and Alexander Burrows and you have two lines that tend to spend a lot more time at the good end of the rink than their opponents.

Vancouver doesn't have an elite weapon from the blueline on their roster, but guys like Alexander Edler, Dan Hamhuis, Kevin Bieksa and (when healthy) Sami Salo are certainly good enough to keep things moving at both even strength and on the power play.

Advantage: Even

Nashville Offense vs. Vancouver Defense

Nashville Predators offense: -11.0 GVT (Rank: 23rd in NHL)
Vancouver Canucks defense: +10.3 GVT (Rank: 9th in NHL)
Vancouver Canucks goaltending: +29.6 (Rank: 2nd in NHL)
Total: Nashville Predators, -50.9 GVT

This is where the mismatch rears its ugly head: the Canucks were a better than average defensive team this season backed by the second-best goaltending in the league. The Predators, on the other hand, were bottom third in terms of generating offense, and as such, are going to have a hard time putting enough pucks in the net to get past Vancouver and into the third round.

Owing to budget and skill deficits, Nashville goes about generating offense via a "committee" approach. No one on the Predators scored more than 50 points this season, but the club did boast seven different 30+ point getters. Sergei Kostitsyn was the surprise team leader in both goals and points this season with 23 and 50 respectively. Patrick Hornqvist was the only other skater to crack the 20-goal mark with 21. Steve Sullivan may have been the eighth player to pierce the 30-point mark had he played more than 44 games this season. Ditto Mike Fisher, who came over at the trade deadline from the Ottawa Senators. Neither player is explosive on the attack, but both add a bit more speed and skill to the Predators front-end.

In contrast, Nashville does tend to get a good number of points from the back-end. Shea Weber finished tied for third on the team with 48 points, while Ryan Suter (39 points) and Cody Franson (29 points) were both comfortably within the top-10.

For their part, the Canucks are solid defensively from top-to-bottom. As mentioned, the Sedins are reserved almost exclusively for offensive-duties, so the defensive duties are left to Kesler, Raymond, Hansen and the newly-added Chris Higgins, who had one of the best relative Corsi rates in the league prior to being traded to Vancouver from Florida. Manny Malholtra was also doing a lot of the defensive heavy lifting for the club prior to his unfortunate eye injury, but his absence has meant a lot of the tougher minutes being shifted back to Ryan Kesler. Luckily for Vancouver, Kesler is a legitimate Selke candidate, so the burden isn't beyond him.

Vancouver's blueline is stacked with better than average defenders. Alex Edler has emerged as a strong, two-way blueliner over the last couple of seasons and is probably the best all-around defender on the team. Dan Hamhuis and Kevin Bieksa have formed a formidable duo who can play anywhere in the top-four rotation and were leaned on to take shutdown duties when Edler went down with an injury for a large portion of the year. Keith Ballard and Christian Ehrhoff are good enough to take on softer minutes, as are Sami Salo and Andrew Alberts.

There are no Norris candidates amongst Vancouver's defenders, but the depth from one to seven is undeniable.

Finally, Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider are probably the best one-two punch in terms of goalies in the league. Luongo had another Vezina quality season, boasting a save percentage of .928 over 60 contests. Not to be outdone, rookie netminder Cory Schneider managed a .929 save rate in 25 appearances, making a strong case that he is also ready to become an elite puck stopper at the NHL level.

It's rare that a team spending $10 million in real dollars on their starter would have that kind of redundancy in net, but they do. If Luongo gets injured or falters, Schneider will be ready to step in with a minimal dip in performance.

Advantage: Vancouver Canucks

Vancouver Power Play vs. Nashville Penalty Kill

Vancouver Canucks Power Play: +23.6 GVT (Rank: 1st in NHL)
Nashville Predators Penalty Kill: +6.6 GVT (Rank: 8th in NHL)
Total: Vancouver Canucks, +17.0 GVT

The Predators were an above average shorthanded team in the league this season, but the Canucks featured the most potent power play in the league. Their first unit of Kesler and the Sedin twins is highly adept at moving pucks through seams and causing havoc in front of the net.

Advantage: Vancouver Canucks

Nashville Power Play vs. Vancouver Penalty Kill

Nashville Predators Power Play: -3.1 GVT (Rank: 18th in NHL)
Vancouver Canucks Penalty Kill: +9.9 (Rank: 4th in NHL)
Total: Nashville Predators, -13.0 GVT

Despite Shea Weber's bomb from the blueline, the Predators still have a below average power play. Their forward corps just doesn't have the talent to really drive the man advantage. The Canucks were again top-five in the league, this time in terms of killing penalties. Having elite goaltending, a strong blueline and award-winning defensive centers helps.

Advantage: Vancouver Canucks

Injuries and Intangibles

The Canucks overcame a significant barrier—barely—when they managed to get past the Blackhawks in the first round. Chicago has been Vancouver's postseason nemesis the past two years, so defeating them represents a major obstacle overcome for Vancouver. The Predators, on the other hand, may just be happy making it to the second round. The organization has put together a number of quality teams over the years despite some budget restraints, but has never been able to make it to this point of the postseason. As a result, most of their roster has never been this deep in the playoffs before.

In terms of injuries, as mentioned the Canucks are currently without Manny Malholtra (eye) and Sami Salo (just generally fragile). Both are capable support players, but not keys to the Canucks success. The Predators are bit more injury-riddled, however, with Matthew Lombardi (concussion), Cal O'Reilly (broken leg), Marcel Goc (shoulder) and Francis Bouillon (upper body) out indefinitely. Martin Erat (upper body) was also hurt in Game 4 of the first round against Anaheim, and it's unknown whether he will return sooner rather than later.

Advantage: Vancouver Canucks

Prediction

Vancouver Canucks: +77.0 GVT (1st in the NHL)
Nashville Predators: +25.0 GVT (9th in the NHL)
Total: Vancouver Canucks, +52.0 GVT

The Predators are a good defensive team with top-notch goaltending. Unfortunately for them, so are the Canucks who also have an elite offense to match. Nashville is therefore the underdog in just about every aspect of the game outside of defensive play, often by a wide margin. Their additional injuries don't help things. Overall, unless Legwand and company can completely shut down the Sedins while Pekka Rinne stands on his head in the crease, this one is likely to go to Vancouver.

Canucks in five games

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