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Conference Final

5 storylines for Western Conference Final

Matchup between Ducks center Ryan Kesler, Predators' top line among highlights

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

The Nashville Predators are in the Western Conference Final for the first time. The Anaheim Ducks are back for the second time in three seasons, fifth overall.

Nashville reached the conference final by sweeping the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round and defeating the St. Louis Blues in six games in the second round. The Ducks swept the Calgary Flames in the first round and defeated the Edmonton Oilers in seven games in the second round, ending the series with a 2-1 win in Anaheim on Wednesday.

Game 1 of the Western Conference Final is at Honda Center on Friday (9 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).

Here are 5 storylines to pay attention to during the best-of-7 series:

 

1. Rematch of 2016 first round

The Ducks started their offseason after losing to the Predators in Game 7 of the 2016 first round. They had a 3-2 series lead after five games, but the Predators won 3-1 in Game 6 in Nashville and then defeated the Ducks 2-1 in Game 7 in Anaheim.

The Ducks outshot the Predators 28-10 in the final two periods of Game 7 last year, but Predators goalie Pekka Rinne stopped 27 of them and finished with 36 saves to give Nashville the win in its first Game 7.

The Predators also defeated the Ducks in six games in the 2011 Western Conference Quarterfinals. It was the first time Nashville won a playoff series. 

History typically doesn't matter at this stage, but that seven-game series last year still has to be fresh for both teams. Perhaps it could create animosity quickly in this series.

Video: Previewing the series between the Ducks and Preds

 

2. Battle of the back ends

The Predators get their offensive push from their defensemen, led by P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm. They have combined for 27 points (nine goals, 18 assists) during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Ellis plays the least of the four, and he's averaging 23:52 of ice time per game, which would be second among Ducks defensemen.

The Ducks might be the only team left in the playoffs that can match the Predators' top four. Their top six includes Cam Fowler, Sami Vatanen, Hampus Lindholm, Brandon Montour, Shea Theodore and Josh Manson.

Those six players have combined for 23 points (three goals, 20 assists), but that's with Fowler missing four games and Vatanen missing five. Kevin Bieksa has four points in five games but has been out because of a lower-body injury sustained in Game 1 against the Oilers.

Anaheim has to find a way to slow the Nashville defensemen by stopping their rush game, stopping them from gaining the offensive zone, and stopping them from generating shots off the entry. The best way to do that is to throw the Predators' game right back at them. The Ducks have the personnel to do it.

Video: NSH@STL, Gm1: Subban buries scorching one-timer

 

3. P.K. Subban vs. Ryan Getzlaf

Considering how well Subban and Ekholm, his defense partner, played defensively against Blues forward Vladimir Tarasenko, it's not a stretch to think that they will get the assignment of trying to check Getzlaf and his line, which in Game 7 against the Oilers included Corey Perry and Nick Ritchie.

This is a different assignment for Subban and Ekholm because Getzlaf is a center and Tarasenko plays on the wing. Getzlaf has to cover more ice, which means Subban and Ekholm would have to worry about more ice. 

In addition, Getzlaf arguably is at the top of his game. He is third in the NHL during the playoffs with 15 points (eight goals, seven assists) in 11 playoff games and is among the top contenders for the Conn Smythe Trophy through two rounds.

The Oilers had no answer for Getzlaf and the size of that line with Perry and Ritchie. Subban and Ekholm likely will be given the chance to figure them out.

Video: EDM@ANA, Gm5: Getzlaf nets slapper from the point

 

4. Ryan Kesler vs. Nashville's top line

Kesler's reward for playing well against Oilers center Connor McDavid in the second round likely will be the opportunity to try to go up against the Predators' top line of Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson.

This is no easy task for Kesler, but then again he's one of the best at getting in the face, the head and everywhere else of top players from the opposition.

Forsberg, Johansen and Arvidsson had an OK second round against the Blues. They combined for seven points (two goals, five assists), but four points came in Nashville's series-clinching 3-1 win in Game 6. 

Johansen scored the game-winner off assists from Arvidsson and Forsberg at 3:15 of the third period. It came off the rush after Ekholm forced a turnover by Tarasenko in the defensive zone and started the play up the ice.

That goal was a perfect example of how the Predators did a good job against Tarasenko and started their offense from the back end. Kesler likely will have to try to shut down some of that offense by checking Nashville's top line. He typically plays that role well.

Video: ANA@EDM, Gm3: Kesler bangs home puck at the doorstep

 

5. Predators trying to keep a trend going

The Predators are the sixth team since the NHL went to a divisional/conference-based format in the playoffs in 1982 to reach the conference final despite finishing with the lowest number of points of any of the eight teams that reached the postseason from that conference. 

Two of the previous three such teams to get this far also advanced to the Stanley Cup Final.

The Oilers got to the Cup Final as the No. 8 seed in 2006 and the Los Angeles Kings did it in 2012. The Kings won the Stanley Cup. The Oilers lost in seven games to the Carolina Hurricanes.

The Montreal Canadiens got to the Eastern Conference Final in 2010 despite finishing with the fewest number of points among playoff teams in the regular season (88). They lost in five games to the Philadelphia Flyers, who were the No. 7 seed that season.

The Canadiens also did it in 1984, and the New York Rangers did it in 1986. Neither reached the Stanley Cup Final.

Video: Stu Grimson on Predators' playoff success

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