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Regular season recap
Oct. 22: Predators 5, Ducks 1
Nov. 1: Ducks 4, Predators 2
Nov. 17: Predators 3, Ducks 2
Ducks: G John Gibson (lower-body, day-to-day); C Ryan Kesler (lower-body, day-to-day); C Brandon Pirri (upper-body, day-to-day); LW David Perron (shoulder, day-to-day); C Rickard Rakell (appendicitis, day-to-day); D Kevin Bieksa (upper-body, probable); D Sami Vatanen (illness, expected to return)
Predators: RW Miikka Salomaki (undisclosed, day-to-day)
Keys to a Ducks victory
After entering the season with a “Stanley Cup or bust” mentality, the Ducks have been through it all. With just one win in their first 10 games, they got off to a disastrous start that almost got coach Bruce Boudreau fired, and stormed back to win their fourth straight Pacific title, a feat that is worthy of celebrating itself. But this season will still be deemed a failure if Anaheim doesn’t, at the very least, make a deep playoff run similar to last year’s where the Ducks fell one game shy of the Stanley Cup Final. But the path won’t be easy. Once again Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry will be heavily relied up. The star duo can change games. Getzlaf is one of the smartest, and unselfish, players in the league. Perry led the Ducks with 34 goals and is adept at doing little things to get under an opponents’ skin. But they can’t carry the workload alone.
Anaheim had its share of injuries down the stretch but forwards Ryan Kesler, David Perron and Rickard Rakell and goalie John Gibson are all “probable” to play in Game 1. That will be absolutely critical, as Kesler gives the Ducks’ a shutdown center who matches up well against Nashville's Ryan Johansen. Perron adds scoring depth with his hard rushes right to the net and, perhaps more importantly, allows the Ducks to split up Getzlaf and Perry. Since coming over from Pittsburgh in January, Perron immediately complemented Getzlaf, scoring 20 points in 28 games before getting hurt.
Splitting up the “twins” will present matchup problems for the Preds, who will be unable to put their top defensive pair of Shea Weber and Roman Josi against them at all times. Rakell must continue his breakout season (20 goals, 43 points) and the Ducks will also need help from their solid core of defensemen in Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm, Kevin Bieksa and Sami Vatanen. The million-dollar question, though, is who will start in net. Both goalies, Frederik Andersen (36 starts; 22-9-7, 2.30, .919) and John Gibson (38; 21-13-4, 2.07, .920), proved their worthiness this season, and coach Bruce Boudreau has been tight-lipped about the situation, even saying that he’ll flip a coin to determine the starter. Regardless of who it is they will likely be on a short leash with a capable backup waiting to jump in.
Keys to a Predators victory
Don’t write Nashville off just because of the its history of playoff disappointment. Yes, the Preds have only won two series in franchise history, but this group, despite being a wild card and relatively inexperienced team, is extremely dangerous—and hot, having won 16 of its final 28 games while playing its best hockey of the year. This type of series is exactly why the Preds dealt blueliner Seth Jones to Columbus for Johansen, who gives them a true No. 1 center for the first time. With the physical challenge that Anaheim presents, Johansen (8-26-34 since the trade) will need to utilize his 6' 3", 218-pound frame effectively. He’ll likely matchup against Kesler in a battle that is sure to be one of the best of the first round. But in order to beat a team like Anaheim, Nashville will need continued production from Filip Forsberg and James Neal, the Preds' first pair of 30-goal scorers in a decade, and Craig Smith, who scored at least 20 for the third consecutive season.
The Preds have always had a strong defense, and it has carried them once again. Shea Weber and Roman Josi were two of only 12 defensemen in the NHL to score at least 50 points this season, making Nashville the only team to have two backliners accomplish the feat. The Ducks play a gritty game, and having an experienced pair like Weber and Josi will be key to shutting down Anaheim’s scoring depth. The Preds will also need a much-improved playoff performance from goalie Pekka Rinne, who carried the load for Nashville with 66 starts this season, but has struggled in the postseason during his career, going only 15-19. Whoever his counterpart is for Anaheim, one thing is for sure: Rinne will have to outduel him in order to give Nashville a chance to advance.
Defense may win championships, and Nashville boasts one of the best blue lines in the league, but the Ducks have too much talent and depth. Anaheim has simply dominated the league since Christmas to finish first in power play, penalty kill and goals-against, all of which indicated that this team is poised for another deep run. Expect a hard-hitting, physical series that fits Anaheim’s style of play. Ducks in six.