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Round One: Four Deciding Factors for Stars vs. Preds

Series Promises to Feature Excellent Defense; Preds, Stars Meet for First Time

by Thomas Willis & Brooks Bratten @PredsNHL /

Finishing Strong: One of the consistent themes throughout the season for the Predators was their inconsistency.

After a fast start, Nashville went through slow stretches at times as the campaign continued, including a period where the group was unable to string together three-consecutive victories for a month and a half. For a team as talented as Nashville, that wasn't easy to take inside the locker room.

However, a California road trip last month saw the Preds get back on an upward trajectory, and since a 3-1 victory in Los Angeles on March 14, Nashville has points in eight of 10 games with seven of those being wins.

Triumphs on the road in San Jose and Pittsburgh, as well as a comeback win over the Canucks on Thursday, stand out in that stretch as the Predators continue to find confidence in their overall game.

At this time of the year, teams not only want to be collecting points, they also prefer to play to their strengths and gain momentum as the postseason looms. More often than not as of late, the Preds have been doing both.

Lock It Down: In a large sense, the Predators' dazzling record of 35-4-1 when scoring a game's first goal is a testament to their structure and team defense.

When the Preds are able to sit back, limit the opposition's high-danger scoring opportunities and counter attack, they're at their best. Put another way, Nashville won just 12 times when they didn't light the lamp first.

Nashville's competitive advantage starts in the net with reigning Vezina Trophy winner Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros. Add in one of the NHL's best defensive units, including All-Star defensemen in Roman Josi and P.K. Subban, and looking to defense first and exhibiting patience makes sense.

"That's exactly our message going into the third, go out and play our game and do the little things right," Preds center Ryan Johansen said following a win over the Sabres on April 2. "Do it hard and execute our details well, and the game will take care of itself and that's how it ended up going."

The return of Austin Watson near the end of the regular season has also aided the Predators forward units as the first lines of defense. With the Preds and Stars both in the NHL's Top Five for fewest goals allowed, each block, each poke check and each defensive stop mean that much more.

Stars Starter: Who will get the nod in net for Dallas to start the series - Ben Bishop or Anton Khudobin?

Bishop seems like he'd be the obvious choice, and his numbers speak for themselves. After a shutout in game No. 82, the 6-foot-7 goaltender finished first in the League in save percentage at a .934 mark and second among his peers with a 1.98 goals-against average. Those are impressive numbers the Predators would have to make a dent in to be successful.

However, Bishop only saw action in one of the five meetings this season between the Preds and Stars. The other four outings saw Anton Khudobin mind the crease, and through those first two games, the netminder only allowed one puck to get past him, including a 49-save shutout in Nashville two days after Christmas.

No matter who the Dallas coaching staff elects to go with in Game 1, there will be a formidable foe waiting if the first choice falters at any point.

Defensive Catalysts: During Head Coach Jim Montgomery's first season behind the bench, a few noticeable differences have taken place.

For one, the Stars made the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2016, and one of the paramount reasons for that has been an improvement on the defensive side of the puck. Dallas only allowed 200 goals in total this season and averaged just 2.44 goals-against per game, both marks good for second in the NHL.

Nashville did find offensive success against the Stars this season - they scored five goals each in two of the five meetings with Dallas - but a greater attention to detail in their own zone has worked well enough to earn the Stars a postseason berth.

The Predators will need to find production throughout their lineup, especially against a team with the capability to shut down top players.

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