The Nashville Predators made an improbable run to make it to last year’s Stanley Cup Final, and are even stronger entering this year’s playoffs.
The Colorado Avalanche defied the odds to reach the postseason to begin with. After recording the league’s worst record — by 21 points — in 2016-17, Colorado qualified this season by winning its final game of the season against the St. Louis Blues.
First line. Here’s where the Avalanche shine. Top center Nathan MacKinnon (97 points) asserted himself into the MVP discussion by midseason and never let up. His linemates Mikko Rantanen (84 points) and Gabriel Landeskog (62 points) hold up their end of the bargain, too. The Predators are less top-heavy. Though Filip Forsberg shines, Nashville’s strength lies in its balance. Advantage: Avalanche.
Depth. A playoff series could easily be defined by center depth, and is there any team who has it better down the center than the Predators? (Answer: no.) Overall depth has been Nashville’s greatest strength this season; coach Peter Laviolette has had to manage his lineup all season to make sure everyone is getting playing time. The Avalanche aren’t as lucky. The first-line buoyed the team for most of the season, as young players were integrated into the lineup. Advantage: Predators.
Defense. You could probably make the case for Nashville boasting the best top four in the league, too. They certainly have two of the overall best defensemen in Roman Josi and P.K. Subban. The Avalanche aren’t as lucky. Erik Johnson is a stud, but he’s out indefinitely with an injury — this is less than ideal. Tyson Barriehas had a nice season offensively, but the Avs’ current top six blueliners simply aren’t on par with their opponents, who are No. 2 in the league in goals allowed per game (2.49). Advantage: Predators.
Goaltending. Pekka Rinne has been sensational; he’s the Vezina Trophy front-runner, and looks to build off last year’s postseason run. Rinne’s backup, Juuse Saros, isn’t shabby himself, and is poised to carry a franchise sometimes soon. The Avalanche are without their top goaltender, Semyon Varlamov, for this series. Jonathan Bernier has been a formidable backup, but remains inconsistent. Advantage: Predators.
Special teams. The Avalanche actually have one of the best power plays in the league (ranking seventh, at 21.9 percent). It will be fun to watch them match up with the Predators’ penalty kill (sixth in the league, at 81.9 percent). The Avalanche have been even better at killing off penalties though, ranking third in the league, at 83.3 percent. Nashville’s power play should be better than it is, as they finished 12th this season, at 21.2 percent. Advantage: Avalanche.
Coaching. If not for Gerard Gallant and the incredible Vegas Golden Knights, Colorado’s Jared Bednar would likely be the front-runner for NHL coach of the year for the turnaround he engineered — all while losing his best player, Matt Duchene, to a trade in November. That said, when it comes to experience, Peter Laviolette is the guy. With one Stanley Cup and two conference championships to his name, he has been in this position before.Advantage: Predators.
Health. The Avalanche had two serious blows before the playoffs: No. 1 goaltender Semyon Varlamov is out (and will not be available for the Nashville series). No. 1 defenseman Erik Johnson is also out indefinitely. Those are two significant losses. The Predators are far healthier. Advantage: Predators.
ESPN Series pick: Predators in five.
Free Sports Press Series pick: Predators in seven.
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