It’s kind of funny that the sixth and seventh placed teams in the Western Conference are playing each other in the second round while the first and second seeded teams are set to duke it out against each other, but whatever. This is a nice geographical rivalry, or something. Right?
There’s a decent chance that whoever wins this thing is going to get rolled by the Dallas Stars or St. Louis Blues in the Conference Finals, but hey, if I’m a fan of either team, I would take that over getting rolled by one of those teams in the second round!
Anyways, here we are now. The San Jose Sharks, fresh off pummelling the Los Angeles Kings in the first round in five games, and the Nashville Predators, who did their best to ensure that Bruce Boudreau doesn’t have a job next year after wiping out the Anaheim Ducks in seven games. While they may be sixth and seventh in the standings, these are two good teams, which should make for an entertaining, and difficult to predict series.
The Predators and Sharks played each other three times this season, with Nashville earning wins in the first two meetings, and San jose grabbing an overtime win in the most recent one.
The first game came all the way back on Oct. 28, when the Predators beat the Sharks 2-1 to move to 7-1-1 on the season. At this point, it looked like Nashville was going to be the dominant team of the Western Conference, while San Jose was going to be just pretty kinda whatever. The Sharks tossed 21 shots on Pekka Rinne and only managed to get one through, and the Preds scored two on 24 shots. Overall, the possession numbers indicate that Nashville was the superior team, both at even strength and in all situations.
The second time these two teams met came well later in the season on Feb. 6. The Predators had spent the last few weeks in a little bit of a tailspin, while the Sharks were beginning to establish themselves as more than bubble team in the Pacific Division. Like the previous match, the possession and shot numbers indicate a relatively equal battle, but that certainly isn’t reflected by the score. Marin Jones had a rough game, allowing five goals on 29 shots, while Rinne was solid again, stopping 38 of the 30 shots he faced, helping Nashville to a 6-2 victory.
The final game came right at the end of the season, as the Sharks finally managed to squeeze out their first and only win of the season series in a shootout. The Predators carried the play in the first two periods, entering the third with a 2-0 lead and superior underlying numbers, but the Sharks battled back to tie it before the end of regulation with a dominant third period. This was the only game of the three in which one of the teams clearly outplayed the other, as nobody on Nashville had a Corsi For percentage above 50 per cent.
So there was two games where the teams played at an equal level, and one where San Jose was clearly better. While Nashville earned two wins and a shootout loss in the season series, I wouldn’t call them clear-cut winner here.
The Nashville Predators are a much better team than their record indicates. Despite finishing seventh in the Western Conference standings with a record that would be right at .500 if overtime losses were just considered regular losses, the Preds boasted some of the best underlying numbers in the game. The Sharks certainly weren’t slouches in their own right, but they aren’t in the elite tier of teams like Nashville this season.
The Predators had a 52.5 Corsi For percentage at even strength, good for fourth best in the league behind only Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and Dallas, and they had the second highest even strength Fenwick For percentage at 53.6 behind only the Kings. While they were just in the mid-range for generating shot attempts, they were one of the league’s best at suppressing the other team, which isn’t surpyringing considering the strength of their roster is certainly their defence. Their elite defensive ability is clearly evident not only in their ability to suppress shot attempts, but the fact that they allowed a league low 8.4 high danger scoring opportunities per hour against. Nobody even came close to that.
Like I said, though, the Sharks aren’t slouches either. While they aren’t in the same elite tier as Nashville at suppressing the other team’s ability to generate offence, they were still well above average. Their Corsi and Fenwick against per hour both ranked in the top ten in the league, and they managed to hold opponents to just 9.7 high danger chances per hour. The surprising thing here is the fact that their offensive production isn’t as good as Nashville’s, which is odd because of the firepower they boast up front.
Overall, the Preds have some of the best underlying numbers in the league. They’re among the elite at stopping their opponents from getting anything going, and they generate offence at a pretty fair clip. And while the Sharks aren’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, they don’t look all that good when stacked up against the Predators.
What the Sharks lack when stacked up against the Predators, they make up in special teams.
Both teams have a roughly league average penalty kill, and neither the Sharks or the Predators are often penalized. So we can call that part of the special teams game a wash. Where San Jose jumps in front, unsurprisingly based on the skill they boast in their lineup, is on the power play.
The Sharks are excellent at drawing penalties, as their 275 power play opportunities ranks fifth in the league, and they’re also excellent at taking advantage of them. Their 22.5 power play efficiency is third behind only the Anaheim Ducks and Chicago Blackhawks, and because of the volume of chances they generated, nobody in the league scored more goals on the man advantage than they did.
I mean, when you have Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture and Brent Burns on the ice skating circles around a penalized teams, good things are going to happen.
These two teams are pretty decent on the penalty kill, largely because both of them are disciplined. But where San Jose pulls ahead is on the power play, which isn’t a big part of Nashville’s game.
Earlier on, I was going on about how Nashville was amazing at limiting the other team’s ability to generate chances. Nobody was better at protecting the box, as the Predators allowed the fewest high danger chances in the league against their net. So what the hell happened here? Pekka Rinne wasn’t good. At all.
Despite having a pretty easy workload, Rinne had arguably the worst season of his NHL career this year. Last year, he was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy thanks to his ability to lock it down the few times that Nashville needed him to, but this year, his numbers look like he spent the season on the Edmonton Oilers. His .908 save percentage is his lowest since his injury-riddled 2013-14 campaign, and his -12.51 goals saved above average put him in the bottom third of the league among qualified goalies. The worst part? He got hammered in high danger scoring chances. So even though Nashville made it easy for him, he made it hard for them in return.
On the other side, we have Martin Jones, who was the most recent L.A. Kings backup goalie to make his way out of the system and into a starting role. Jones was excellent in his first season carrying the load, posting a .918 save percentage and 4.64 goals saved above average, which is certainly enough for a Sharks team that doesn’t have a hard time scoring goals.
While the Predators would usually have the upper hand here, Pekka Rinne hasn’t been very good at all this season, while Martin Jones has been very solid. That said, both have performed at a similar level so far in the playoffs, so we should just call this a wash right now.
There’s a pretty good chance that whoever wins this series is going to go on to get hammered by either the St. Louis Blues or Dallas Stars in the Conference Final, but making it that far would be a success for both the Predators and Sharks. The underlying numbers suggest that the Predators are the better team, but the Sharks, playing in the playoffs without pressure for the first time in years, looked absolutely phenomenal in the first round agains the Kings. So while my head says Predators, I’m going to go Sharks in six.