On paper, the Nashville Predators are underdogs against their opponents in Round One, the Carolina Hurricanes. However, as the Preds - and so many other clubs - have shown over the years when a 35-pound piece of silver is on the line, just about anything is possible.
When the puck drops on Monday night in Raleigh and Game 1 begins, take the numbers for what they're worth. Just be ready for all logic and reason to be obliterated, too.
Here are five things to watch for between the Predators and Hurricanes in Round One. Enjoy.
Juuse Saros might just find himself as a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, as the NHL's top goaltender, and the Predators surely wouldn't be in North Carolina at this point if it weren't for the 26-year-old Finn.
The transition from Pekka Rinne to Saros, as Nashville's No. 1 netminder, was already underway, but the younger of the two certainly established himself as the go-to guy during the 2020-21 season.
He won a career-high 21 games, going 21-11-1 in 36 appearances, and among NHL goaltenders who played in at least 25 games, he was third in save percentage (.927); fifth in goals-against average (2.28); and tied for sixth in wins and shutouts (3). Saros also led all goaltenders in even-strength save percentage (.942).
Saros also helped to orchestrate Nashville's second-half turnaround from the blue paint. In his last 26 appearances of the season - nearly 50 percent of the season, dating back to Feb. 27 - he went 18-6-1 with a 1.88 goals-against average, .941 save percentage and three shutouts. Saros has allowed two-or-fewer goals in 20 of his last 26 starts, and he won nine of 10 starts from March 23 to April 13.
Those digits are impressive no matter how they're interpreted, but now, the Preds are ready for Saros to take the next step and show what he can do in the postseason.
Video: DAL@NSH: Saros stops 28 shots in 14th career shutout
"The playoffs are a new level, and oftentimes careers are defined by what you do in the playoffs," Predators General Manager David Poile said recently on Saros. "The next step for Juice is to lead our team in some playoff victories and winning some series, so this is important for him… and this is his time. He's certainly a prime reason why we're going to be playing Carolina, why we got into the playoffs. There's a lot of reasons, but he's right at the top of the list, and I really think this is going to be the next step for Juice with our team and organization, really to solidify himself as a No. 1 goaltender, to help lead us in the playoffs here against Carolina."
The Predators have unlimited confidence in Saros, and they're ready for him to show what he can do when it matters most.
Nashville also wouldn't be here without their "next-man-up" mentality, and they needed it all season long to find success.
The Predators used 35 different skaters during the season, tied for the fourth-most in the NHL and the team's most since dressing 37 different skaters in 2016-17. Nashville reached the playoffs despite racking up 303 man-games lost due to injury, illness or suspension. It was Nashville's highest total since the 2010-11 season and the fourth-most man-games lost in franchise history.
With the postseason about to get underway, the Predators have some decisions to make.
With the exception of Opening Night back on January 14, the Preds may be healthier than they have been all season long. Of course, only 18 skaters and two goaltenders are dressed per game, and there will be some who don't hit the ice for Game 1.
However, those who are scratched on Monday may not have to wait long for their turn. Just as they did throughout the past four months, the Preds intend on utilizing some different looks during this series, and those in charge expect everyone to be ready if and when their number is called.
"I don't anticipate that the lineup stays the same every game," Hynes said. "Whether you win or lose, or how the team plays or how individuals play, the team may play really well and there's a couple individuals that may not play at the level that they need to. Just because you win doesn't mean we'll stick with that same lineup. We've got to have everybody clicking on all cylinders, playing to their identity, what their specific identity is as a player, and that's how you have to go about making your decisions. The positive thing is you feel very comfortable whatever lineup you put together. If it plays to its potential, we can be a very competitive team in the series.
"There's going to be guys that are going to be out of the lineup, and they're going to stay ready like they have all year long. David and I have talked quite a bit, I've talked with the coaches, we've talked with the players and there's going to be a lineup for Game 1, and there's going to be players out of the lineup for Game 1 that you would feel could be in the lineup. But, like all year long, the lineup that we put on the ice, we need them to play to their max capacity and to the identity that we want to play with, and then we'll continue to move on with the series from there."
Nashville's depth has helped get them here, and if they're to have success in these playoffs, it will likely keep them going, too.
Here Comes the Herd:
There's a reason John Hynes has started his fourth line in just about every game and every period in recent memory.
The bench boss has simply referred to the trio as an "identity line" for his club, but they're better known to Preds fans and media alike as the Herd Line.
We may not even know who exactly will make up that unit until warmups prior to Game 1, but chances are, some combination of Colton Sissons, Yakov Trenin, Tanner Jeannot and Mathieu Olivier might just set the tone on Monday night.
The line, originally featuring Sissons, Trenin and Olivier, played its first of 14 games together on Feb. 5 and outscored its opponents 5-3, dished out an average of six hits per game and controlled 5-on-5 shot attempts by a 116-98 margin.
Video: FLA@NSH: Trenin deflects home Jeannot's shot
When Olivier exited the lineup with a lower-body injury on April 10, the Predators recalled Jeannot from Chicago (AHL), who played his first game on the line on April 11. From then to the end of the regular season, the line averaged 10:07 of ice time, outscored its opponents 7-4 and recorded seven hits a night in 12 contests together.
Whether they're delivering thunderous body checks, creating scoring chances or just simply irritating the opposition, the Herd Line is exactly the kind of crew a team needs in the playoffs. They're already known in Nashville, but they might just become household names elsewhere over the coming weeks.
As impressive as the Herd Line has been in delivering the aforementioned attributes, Nashville's trio of Mikael Granlund, Calle Jarnkrok and Luke Kunin has been their most consistent group of forwards down the stretch.
Granlund (2g-7a), Jarnkrok (2g-6a) and Kunin (6g-1a) combined for 24 points in nine games from April 19 to May 8, and since Kunin returned from injury on March 27, they combined for 41 points (18g-23a) in 21 games. Kunin (8g-6a) and Granlund (6g-8a) tied for the team lead in points in that time span; Jarnkrok (4g-9a) was fourth.
Additionally, Kunin posted a career-high three-game goal streak (3g) from April 19-23; Granlund recorded a season-high point streak of five games (2g-5a) from April 19-27; and Jarnkrok had eight points (2g-6a) in his final nine games of the season.
Acquired during the offseason from Minnesota, Kunin has also shown exactly why the Predators wanted to add him to their roster, and he seems to be poised for an impactful postseason run.
Video: CAR@NSH: Kunin nets his second goal on the break
"The reasons we made the trade for Luke is he's an identity player, he's a younger guy, he's got a great scoring touch, plays the game hard, he's physical, he can skate and he's a tough player to play against," Hynes said. "He was trying to find his game and find his way early, and I think the injury, he went out, then when he came back in, I think he really understood what his role is and he's taken pride in what he can bring to our team. What he brings to our team is different than other players, but I think now you're seeing a player that's physical, he skates, he plays in the hard areas, he's got a great scoring touch and I think he's fitting really well with Jarnkrok and Granlund just in the way that they work. So, it's a real positive development for him and for the team."
Hard on the forecheck, willing to go to the dirty areas and putting his scoring touch on display - including two goals in Nashville's playoff-clinching win over Carolina on May 8 - Kunin is sure to play a role in his team's success this spring.
There's No Place Like Home:
Technically, the Predators don't have home-ice advantage in this series, but they're sure to have an edge when they return back to Bridgestone Arena for Games 3 and 4 on the schedule.
PNC Arena in Raleigh, the site of Games 1 and 2, isn't quiet either, but the addition of any fans has been a welcome sight as crowds have grown over the past four months. The Predators went 11-for-14 in their home building to finish out the regular season, and the energy provided from the hometown faithful has been palpable.
The games are ultimately determined by what happens on the ice, but at this time of the year, and in a building like Bridgestone, a Smashville Standing-O with more than 12,000 strong might just make the difference.
"All the fan support that we've had this year since people have been back in the arena has made a big difference for us at home, and I think the players have recognized that," Hynes said. "Bridgestone is one of the hardest places to play for an opposing team. I think the crowd really helps, I think the environment is exciting, but what's really nice after everything that everyone's gone through, players, coaches, organization, staff members, City of Nashville, our fans, we've gotten through it. We've punched our ticket to the playoffs, we have playoff home games and I think it's going to be a great environment and well deserved by everybody."