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Predators vs. Ducks First Round series preview

Anaheim aims for another long playoff run after trip to West Final last year

by Abbey Mastracco and Robby Stanley / NHL.com Correspondents

The Anaheim Ducks may be wondering when they will receive their reward for finishing first in the Pacific Division and second in the Western Conference.

The Ducks, by virtue of their success, draw the first wild card in the Western Conference, the Nashville Predators, to start what they hope is a long run in the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs. They avoided their two California rivals, the San Jose Sharks and the Los Angeles, for at least one round.

But these wild-card Predators are a true wild card for the Ducks. Nashville finished seven points behind Anaheim and outscored it by 10 goals (228-218).

Travel is also a consideration. While the Kings and Sharks are enjoying a short hop up and down the California coast, the Ducks will be flying 1,800 miles each way and changing time zones twice in each leg of the journey.

Oh, and Nashville had Anaheim's number this season. The Predators won two of three games, outscoring the Ducks 10-7.

The Predators may not be the reward the Ducks had envisioned for winning their division, but they should be the perfect opponent for an unforgettable first-round series.

 

Video: ANA@SJS: Perry opens scoring with breakaway goal

FORWARDS

Ducks: Anaheim turned its season around by effectively managing its forward depth. But that depth has been significantly thinned by injuries.

Anaheim missed Rickard Rakell and Brandon Pirri during the final two weeks of the regular season, and was without David Perron for the past three weeks. Perron (shoulder) and Rakell (appendectomy) are especially tough losses.

The addition of Perron in a trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins on Jan. 15 allowed the Ducks to split up longtime linemates Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. Perron was put on the top line with Getzlaf, and it was an instant success; he scored at least a point in five of his first six games and had eight goals and 20 points in 28 games with Anaheim. Perry moved to the second line to capitalize on Rakell's breakout season.

Those two lines, combined with a shutdown checking trio of Andrew Cogliano, Ryan Kesler and Jakob Silfverberg and a big, physical fourth unit, allowed the Ducks to roll their lines and present matchup problems almost at will.

The acquisitions of Pirri and Jamie McGinn before the NHL Trade Deadline added scoring depth. After recovering from an ankle injury, Pirri scored three goals in nine games but hasn't played since he was injured April 1. McGinn has been at his best on the second line with Rakell and Perry, using his size to get to the net for tips and screens.

Nate Thompson has centered the fourth line, typically with Ryan Garbutt and Chris Stewart.

Coach Bruce Boudreau would like to use a lineup that has Getzlaf and Perry on separate lines. All four lines can score, defend and come hard on the forecheck. However, if the injuries persist, the top line will look more like it has in seasons past, with Getzlaf and Perry joined by McGinn, and the depth thins out after the top two lines.

Video: NSH@PIT: Neal finds Johansen in front to even game

Predators: Filip Forsberg and James Neal have been the most dangerous players for Nashville; each scored more than 30 goals. Forsberg was one of the hottest players in the League during the final two months.

"He's been great," defenseman Roman Josi said. "Some of the things that he does in practice that you guys don't even see, sometimes you look at yourselves and think you're the worst hockey player with the stuff he does. He's been unreal for us, and he's got a great future ahead of him."

The Predators added a true No. 1 center in January when they acquired Ryan Johansen from the Columbus Blue Jackets for defenseman Seth Jones. Johansen's insertion into the lineup has resulted in a domino effect for the rest of the forwards, giving Nashville a more balanced attack.

Veteran Mike Ribeiro centers Forsberg and Craig Smith on the second line and is a pass-first player. Smith had a slow start but surged after he was placed permanently on a line with Forsberg and Ribeiro; he finished with 21 goals.

Mike Fisher centers the third line and has had a host of linemates. Left wing Colin Wilson had a down season after scoring 20 goals in 2014-15 and will need to elevate his game to add secondary scoring.

Paul Gaustad centered the fourth line for most of the season. Left wing Eric Nystrom is used heavily on the penalty kill, and right wing Austin Watson's size could be valuable if he's inserted into the lineup.

 

DEFENSEMEN

Ducks: Anaheim has a wealth of young defensemen.

Hampus Lindholm and Josh Manson compete with Cam Fowler and Kevin Bieksa for top-pair billing.

Lindholm has grown into a shutdown defender with size and offensive skill, never afraid to jump into a play or release a heavy shot. He's also added a physical edge and has become far more aggressive in his third full season.

Manson has no lack of aggression or physicality. Much like his father, former NHL defenseman Dave Manson, he can be an intimidating presence and knows how to use his size to his advantage. It's his first NHL season, but he's played with maturity.

Fowler is 24 but already in his sixth NHL season. The mobile defenseman has become more refined, plays a solid two-way game and is a fixture on the power play. Fowler doesn't play with as much power as some of the other Anaheim defensemen, but Bieksa plays with enough for both of them. Boudreau has relied on Bieksa, who's in his first season with the Ducks, to eat minutes and kill penalties.

Sami Vatanen generally plays on the third pair, but his value is far greater than that of a bottom-pair defenseman, showing how deep the Ducks are on the blue line. A strong puck-mover, he kills penalties, quarterbacks the power play and has a hard shot. Vatanen's 29 assists led Anaheim defensemen, and he was among the NHL's top defensemen in power-play goals (four) and points (19).

Vatanen has been paired with either Clayton Stoner, a big, stay-at-home defender, or Simon Despres, a smooth-skating, physical lefty.

Predators: Nashville's defensemen enjoy getting up in the play and joining the rush, making them a formidable threat in each zone.

Josi is perhaps the most dangerous weapon the Predators have because of his ability to transition from defense to offense quickly and lead the attack. He's usually paired with captain Shea Weber to form one of the best defense duos in the NHL. Weber's slap shot is a big weapon, particularly on the power play.

Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis also like to join the rush, and Ekholm has developed into a physical defensemen in his own zone. Ekholm and Ellis are most effective when paired together, but they have been split up at times throughout the season.

Barret Jackman, Anthony Bitetto and Petter Granberg round out the group. Jackman and Granberg are stay-at-home defensemen; Bitetto is more likely to join the rush.

After trading Jones to Columbus, Nashville chose not to add another veteran defenseman prior to the 2016 NHL Trade Deadline, relying on younger players like Bitetto and Granberg to fill depth roles.

 

Video: ANA@LAK: Gibson snares Carter's shot, freezes puck

GOALTENDERS

Ducks: When Anaheim was mired in a team-wide scoring slump early in the season, Frederik Andersen and John Gibson consistently turned in strong performances to keep the Ducks in games.

Andersen is more experienced and owns a better record. He was 11-8 with a 2.34 goals-against average and .913 save percentage in the 2015 playoffs, and his teammates have the utmost trust in him. Athletic with good puck-handling ability, Andersen has a fiery, competitive demeanor that his teammates say fuels them. He returned from a concussion to make 24 saves in the 2-0 shutout win against the Washington Capitals on Sunday that won the division title.

Gibson is comparable to Andersen in terms of size and ability but is far calmer in the net. After two breakout postseason performances against the Los Angeles Kings in the 2014 Western Conference Second Round, he battled injuries and inconsistencies before finally working his way into a regular role this season.

For the most part, Gibson and Andersen have rotated this season, each playing two games at a time. Anaheim has two true No. 1 goaltenders, but Boudreau declines to give them a No. 1 or No. 2 label.

Boudreau has not said whether he plans to continue using a rotation.

Video: LAK@NSH: Rinne denies Muzzin and scramble in front

Predators: Pekka Rinne's season mirrored Nashville's as a whole. It started strong, had a rough patch through parts of November, December and January, and then finished on a good run, suggesting Nashville will go as far as Rinne takes it. 

Rinne has been an excellent goaltender in the regular season for years now, but he has never taken his team past the second round. One of the big concerns for the Predators will be how much Rinne has left in the tank. He played the second-most minutes of any goaltender in the League.

Backup Carter Hutton did an admirable job despite not seeing regular action.

 

COACHES

Ducks: One could say Boudreau wears a scarlet number of sorts in the postseason: Seven.

Once known as a great regular-season but shaky postseason coach, Boudreau was able to shed that label by making it to the 2015 Western Conference Final. However, his losing streak in Game 7 continues to plague him; Anaheim has had three consecutive disastrous Game 7 performances under Boudreau.

General manager Bob Murray showed great faith in Boudreau this season. When the Ducks were at the bottom of the division standings and last in the League in goals, many believed Boudreau's firing was imminent. But Boudreau kept his job, righted the ship and led the Ducks to their fourth straight division title.

Affectionately nicknamed "Gabby" for his ability to talk, Boudreau is a players' coach who seems to have a firm grip on his dressing room after overcoming the adversity brought on by the early-season struggles. However, until he finally wins a Game 7, the scarlet number will remain.

Predators: Peter Laviolette's up-tempo system has made Nashville more dangerous offensively in his two seasons behind the bench.

The Predators had two 30-goal scorers for the first time in a decade and had the highest-scoring defense in the League. Laviolette has taken an already-strong defensive team and has implemented a system that preaches pace; he wants the Predators to play fast every game.

Laviolette encourages Josi and Ellis to lead the rush and to look to create for themselves or their teammates. 

Laviolette won the Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006 and took the Philadelphia Flyers to the Final four years later. He has plenty of experience in the postseason. The Predators are hoping that experience pays off in a deep run.

 

Video: ANA@STL: Getzlaf shows off his eye-hand coordination

SPECIAL TEAMS

Ducks: Anaheim's special teams really were special. The Ducks were the first team since the 1984-85 New York Islanders to finish first on the power play and the penalty kill.

Assistant Paul MacLean's small tweaks made a big impact on the power play, which led the NHL by scoring on 23.1 percent of its opportunities. Vatanen, Fowler, Getzlaf and Perry still anchor the top unit, typically with Rakell as the third forward. Kesler leads the second unit with Silfverberg, the Ducks' two best defensive forwards playing off of one another.

When the Ducks won 11 straight games from Feb. 13-March 5, the longest streak in their history, they scored a power-play goal in each game.

Anaheim gave opponents 290 power plays, the second-highest total in the League, but killed off a league-best 87.2 percent of them, allowing 37 goals and scoring seven times while shorthanded. Cogliano and Thompson play big roles on the penalty kill, with Kesler also excelling in neutralizing power-play threats.

Video: NSH@WPG: Johansen backhands puck to cut the deficit

Predators: Josi's ability to quarterback the first power-play unit and the addition of Johansen give the Predators several options with the extra man. Nashville's power play finished 10th at 19.7 percent.

Weber is the top option on the power play because of his slap shot. Josi's first look is normally to tee the puck up for Weber. Johansen and Ribeiro typically man the half-wall, while Neal looks for room to release his shot from the slot.

Nashville's penalty kill struggled early but improved as the season progressed and finished in the middle of the pack.

 

SERIES CHANGERS

Ducks: Ryan Kesler, forward -- Kesler's killer instinct was a big reason Anaheim acquired him from the Vancouver Canucks in June 2014. Though he got off to a slow start offensively, his production picked up as the rest of the team found its stride. But Kesler has far more responsibilities than just scoring goals; he is arguably the Ducks' best defensive player. He goes up against the best centers in the NHL and usually shuts them down, wins most of his faceoffs and plays the most minutes. Kesler missed the season finale Sunday with a lower-body injury, but the Ducks hope he'll be ready for Game 1.

Predators: Filip Forsberg, forward -- Although the Predators have several skilled forwards, none is quite as dynamic as Forsberg.

He scored two goals in his first 21 games but broke out in the second half of the season, developing good chemistry with Ribeiro and Smith

The ability to get his shot off from awkward angles and to create space is what separates Forsberg from most forwards. He's learned how to use his body frame as a weapon, and did a better job this season of getting to the front of the net.

The Predators are a better team when Forsberg is shooting the puck.

 

WILL WIN IF …

Ducks: They maintain their regular-season excellence and forget their demons of postseasons past. No team won more games after the Christmas break than the Ducks. Anaheim reached Game 7 of the Western Conference Final last season, but prior to that there was a string of playoff disappointments after strong regular seasons. The Ducks have to build on their success last spring and avoid reverting back to their previous playoff form.

Predators: They play to the strength of their team -- defensive hockey. Nashville was at its best when it was committed to playing a strong game in front of its goaltenders.

Josi and Weber are elite players, but the Predators are most effective when the forwards buy in defensively. They are an effective team in terms of creating turnovers on the forecheck or in the neutral zone and turning those into offensive opportunities.

The Predators have plenty of speed, particularly among their defensemen. That speed helps them close the gap to opposing attackers faster, which creates good defensive zone coverage. When the Predators are on their game defensively, it's hard for the opposition to create high-quality chances.  

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