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Instant Analysis: Predators Take on Kings in First Round

by Thomas Willis & Brooks Bratten / Nashville Predators

On the final day of the regular season, the Nashville Predators learned their First Round opponent in the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs. By virtue of winning the Pacific Division, the Los Angeles Kings will take on the Preds in the Western Conference Quarterfinals.

The full playoff schedule will be released in the next few hours, but it’s already known that Games One, Two, Five* and Seven* will be played in L.A., while Games Three, Four and Six* will be in Music City at Bridgestone Arena, with tickets already on sale for those contests (*if necessary).

Below, take a look at the Preds and Kings season series, important matchup points and pertinent stats.


Season Series:

Nashville 2015-16 regular season record against Los Angeles: 1-0-2

Scoring Leaders:

Nashville: Goals: James Neal, Ryan Ellis (2)

Assists: Mike Fisher, Roman Josi, James Neal (2)

Points: Mike Fisher, James Neal (3)

Los Angeles: Goals: Seven players tied with 1

Assists: Drew Doughty (2)

Points: Drew Doughty (3)

October 31, 2015, at Staples Center: Kings 4, Predators 3 (OT)

The first meeting of the season between the clubs came on Halloween in Los Angeles, with the Preds carrying a 2-1 lead into the second intermission, courtesy of power-play goals from James Neal and Shea Weber. The Kings took a 3-2 lead midway through the third, before Ryan Ellis tied the game with less than seven minutes to play. It was Jeff Carter who ended it in overtime for Los Angeles, giving the Kings their seventh consecutive victory at the time. Pekka Rinne made 25 saves on the afternoon; Jonathan Quick turned aside 31 Preds shots.

February 20, 2016, at Bridgestone Arena: Kings 2, Predators 1 (OT)

The Kings made their first visit to Nashville in February and prevailed in overtime once more. Jake Muzzin and Ryan Ellis traded goals in the first period, but then it was the starting netminders who led their clubs to overtime. Pekka Rinne made 30 saves to Jonathan Quick’s 34, before Tanner Pearson gave L.A. a 2-1 win in the extra session.

“They’re a great team,” Ryan Johansen said postgame of the Kings. “They’re one of those teams you might have to face, if you’re going to find ways to win playoff series. They’re a great hockey team, and they played well. I thought we played well tonight too, it’s just a couple of bounces could’ve gone our way. That’s the way it goes.”

March 21, 2016, at Bridgestone Arena: Predators 5, Kings 2

Los Angeles was back in Music City a month after their first visit, and the Preds made sure overtime wouldn’t be necessary for a third time by scoring five goals and chasing Jonathan Quick from the net. Ryan Johansen potted a goal and two assists and Filip Forsberg scored what proved to be the game winner in the second period. Mike Fisher, James Neal and Roman Josi also tallied in the win, while Pekka Rinne made 28 saves to earn the victory.

“We have a lot of young players in this room, and when they go home tonight, they’re going to look at the standings and the results and say, ‘Wow, we beat one of the best teams in this League and a team that’s talked about a lot as a Stanley Cup contender,’” Johansen said following the game. “We’ll definitely use it as confidence for our group in this room and maybe being a playoff matchup, so we’re very happy with the result.”

Analysis:

The Predators and Kings playoff series will likely come down to which side has more success in four key matchup points:

Franchise centermen: Nashville’s decision to flip defenseman Seth Jones for playmaker Ryan Johansen on Jan. 6, 2016, gave the franchise its first, true No. 1 center in the Predators 18-year history, according to General Manager David Poile. Johansen’s addition to the lineup not only shifts Mike Ribeiro and Mike Fisher to the better suited roles on the second and third lines, but the 23-year-old’s passing touch also has helped ignite James Neal’s offensive production (including 10 goals in the month of March - a career high). A big body like Johansen’s up front - capable of logging the most important minutes in a playoff series - gives Nashville a dynamic they haven’t possessed in previous postseason trips.

42 GP: 22-13-7 with Johansen in the lineup (T-9th most points in NHL)

40 GP: 19-14-7 without Johansen (T-12th most points in NHL)

On the other side of the ice, the Kings have experienced the luxury of a skilled, No. 1 center for 10 seasons with the likes of Anze Kopitar on their roster. Understanding the value of their first-line pivot and two-time Stanley Cup champion in Kopitar, the Kings locked up the native of Jesenice, Slovakia, to an eight-year, $80 million contract this season, all but ensuring he’ll retire a King when he decides to someday hang up his skates. Kopitar produced the sixth, 70-point season of his career during the 2015-16 campaign, and at age 28, is likely in the prime of his career.

Tight defense: Two of the three contests in the teams’ 2015-16 season series going to overtime shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. In fact, five of the clubs’ previous seven meetings have gone to overtime or a shootout. Nashville has fared well during the tight games played by the two teams over the past four seasons, going 8-1-3 versus Los Angeles going back to the 2012-13 campaign (including a three-game season sweep in 2014-15).

An emphasis on team defense and quality goaltending from both clubs tends to mean Nashville and L.A. are comfortable with playing one-goal games - a lot of one-goal games. Don’t be surprised to see multiple games go to overtime during the playoff series with a bounce here or there possibly deciding who wins it all.

Rinne vs. Quick (2016 All-Stars Square Off): How many times has a goaltender gotten hot during the Stanley Cup Playoffs and guided his team all the way to a championship? (Answer: Numerous times)

Jonathan Quick has been that exact hero for the Kings before, leading L.A. to their first Stanley Cup title in 2012, despite the Kings qualifying for the playoffs as the No. 8 and final West seed. The all-time shutout leader for an American-born goaltender posted a 16-4 record that postseason to go along with a .946 save percentage and a 1.41 goals-against average.

Quick recorded the first 40-win season of his career in 2015-16 and has been called the best goaltender in the NHL at protecting the lower portion of net. Preds shooters will be challenged to remain patient when trying to beat the netminder, especially when the game is tied late in regulation.

The Predators main man between the pipes ends this regular season on a high note after struggling during the first half of the campaign. Beginning in early February, Pekka Rinne started a month-long stretch where his on-ice statistics paced the League. Not coincidentally, the Predators franchise-record, 14-game point streak accompanied the big Finn’s dominant play.

Rinne has delivered in the postseason before, posting a string of stellar games in the 2011 Western Conference Semifinal series against the Vancouver Canucks, for example, but at times, he’s also struggled to hit his regular-season goals-against (2.37) and save percentage (.917) averages in the playoffs. Considering the high number of one-goal games the Preds and Kings have played over the past four seasons, Nashville will almost certainly need Rinne to replicate his stretch of play from February of this year if they hope to advance to the Second Round.

Norris defensemen: As good as the defensive corps on either side are at preventing the puck from entering their own net, expect some points to come from the blue line as well. For the Preds, the top pairing of Roman Josi and Shea Weber are dangerous on both sides of the puck. Josi finished the season with 14 goals and 61 points, while Weber hit the 20-goal and 50-point marks for the third time in his career. The duo plays big minutes against the opposition’s top forwards and sees time on the power play and penalty kill.

For the Kings, Drew Doughty is in the conversation for the Norris Trophy seemingly every season, much like Nashville’s top pair. Doughty had 14 goals and 51 points this season and averaged just over 28 minutes of ice time per game, third in the NHL.

Moment of the series: Mike Fisher scores a gritty goal in the Predators 5-2 win after being honored prior to the opening faceoff for playing in 1,000 NHL games.

Game of the series: Kings overtime win on Halloween afternoon after both teams traded chances for roughly 65 minutes.

X-Factors: Pekka Rinne (Nashville); Marian Gaborik (Los Angeles)

The Predators will need Pekka Rinne to consistently make big saves so their defense can activate into the rush. On the other side, Marian Gaborik’s health remains up in the air. Perhaps the Kings’ most offensively gifted forward, Gaborik has been sidelined since Feb. 12 with a knee injury, but could return in the playoffs.

History: The Predators and Kings have never previously met in the postseason.

This season, Nashville posted a 13-3-5 record versus the Pacific Division.

The Predators recorded a 1-0-2 record against the Kings in 2015-16, a year after sweeping them in three games during the previous campaign. Los Angeles’ most-recent regulation win over Nashville was on March 4, 2013; conversely, the Predators last regulation win over the Kings came earlier this season when they won 5-2 on March 21.

In his career, Jonathan Quick has a 4-8-2 record versus the Predators.

Games Three, Four and Six* will be played at Bridgestone Arena (*if necessary). Buy Tickets


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