Despite an extremely inconsistent season, the Nashville Predators somehow found a way to win the Central Division for the second consecutive season. The Predators will be rewarded for their efforts with a first-round series against the Dallas Stars and not the St. Louis Blues of the Winnipeg Jets. The Preds will now have the opportunity to do what people in the other 49 states love to do — mess with Texas.

Dallas Stars (43-32-7), 93 points, WC1

GF/G: 2.54
GA/G: 2.44
PP: 21.03%
PK: 82.77%

Players To Watch

Jamie Benn | 27-26–53 — Great all-around player. By his standards, 2018-19 was a down year. One of three bona fide threats in the Stars’ forward group. Benn is the type of player who won’t go down without a fight. He can take a lick, but he probably won’t be giving one out.

Tyler Seguin | 33-47–80 — The most natural goal-scorer on Dallas’ roster. Can shoot and score from anywhere in the offensive zone with his laser beam of a shot. One of three bona fide threats in the Stars’ forward group. More of a Chad or a Brad than a Tyler.

Alex Radulov | 29-43–72 — Much to my own disappointment, Rads has been a fantastic player for the Stars. As you can see by the numbers, he can distribute the puck or put it in the back of the net. One of three bona fide threats in the Stars’ forward group. Was benched back in March for being late to practice. Some things never change.

John Klingberg | 10-35–45 — A fantastic two-way defenseman. He limits shots in his own defensive end, and he can create scoring opportunities in the offensive zone. As much fun as he is to watch when the Stars aren’t playing the Preds, he’ll be a pain in the ass to watch in this series.

Miro Heiskanen | 12-21–33 — Having a great rookie season and should become one of the league’s top puck-moving defenseman. Until then, he is still a rookie no matter how talented he is. The Stars generate some good offensive looks with him on the ice, but the other team is able to take some quality shots as well. The Predators may have to trade chances with him on the ice.

Ben Bishop | 1.98 / .934 —  Bishop is having a Vezina-caliber season in Dallas, but he hasn’t seen the playoffs since 2016. If he gets hot, that will be a big problem for the Preds. Gave up five goals in his only appearance against Nashville this season.

The Matchup

Ken Hitchcock may have left Dallas, but his spirit still lives on in the form of Jim Montgomery. For the second straight season, the Stars have relied on defense and goaltending to win games. That’s a far cry from when Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi were “goaltending” and the Stars needed to score 6 or 7 goals in order to win the game. Defense is now Dallas’ bread and butter. They didn’t exactly light up the scoreboard, but the Stars were outstanding about keeping the puck out of their own net.

Dallas gave up just 200 goals this season, which was second in the NHL. The Predators gave up just 212 goals, which was tied with the Boston Bruins for third in the NHL. The Predators, who struggled to create high quality chances for stretches this year will have an even tougher time doing that against the Stars. Look at how well Dallas protects its own net.

Credit: HockeyViz

The Stars do an excellent job of protecting the slot, which at least partly explains Bishop’s sparkling season. They make teams take shots from the points, which is something the Predators don’t necessarily need to be encouraged to do. They have had a tendency to fall in love with bombing away from the point, which we all know is the most efficient shot in hockey.

On Dallas’ first pairing, John Klingberg has put Esa Lindell on his back and carried him this season. With Klingberg on the ice, 55.41% of the high-danger chances have belonged to Dallas, per Natural Stat Trick. With Lindell on the ice, 48.37% of the high-danger chances have been Dallas’. This is also the dynamic on Dallas’ second pairing. Miro Heiskanen has played pretty well in his rookie season despite being chained to noted anchor Roman Polak. The third pairing is actually pretty solid, especially if Montgomery pairs Taylor Fedun with Jamie Oleksiak instead of Ben Lovejoy.

With that in mind, the Stars have enough weak links on defense that the Predators can beat them. The JoFA line will get theirs. There is no question about that. When healthy, Forsberg, Johansen, and Arvidsson have been nothing short of spectacular. I mean, Arvi set the single-season goals record in just 58 games. That’s damn impressive. That line will create chances no matter who Dallas throws at them.

The wild card in this series, and maybe for the entire playoffs, is Nashville’s second line. That line was a bugaboo for this team all season long. However, it looked like Smith, Turris, and Granlund started to turn the corner late in the season. They were getting more offensive zone time and generating quality chances. If they can gel and things can come together for them, I REALLY like Nashville’s chances. If that line does another disappearing act, this series will go down to the wire. I really don’t need that kind of stress in my life, so I’m going to have to request that the second line put the puck in the net with some regularity.

Outside of that, the third line of Watson, Bonino, and Sissons played extremely well after being reunited. I just hope that, as statsrespecter on Twitter pointed out, that Lavy doesn’t use them solely in a defensive role. They can chip in offensively. It will also be interesting to see what Lavy does with the fourth line. Wayne Simmonds hasn’t been too effective, and Rocco Grimaldi will be healthy soon. Let’s give Rocco’s Modern Line another shot.

Overall, the Preds were pretty average in terms of generating dangerous shots this season.

Credit: HockeyViz

When it comes to shots that are so close to the goalie that the Preds could tell you what he had for the pregame meal, they are well above average. The problem is that large swath of blue in between the circles. The Predators can fall into the trap of moving the puck around the outside and just taking point shots. That’s what Dallas wants, and that’s what Dallas is going at forcing other teams to do. The Predators will have to get the puck off the boards and into the middle of the ice to challenge the Dallas defense a little more. I’d like to see Granlund try to set up Smith or Turris in the middle of the ice in this series.

Now let’s flip things to the other end. Nashville, as you might expect, was pretty solid in the defensive end this season.

Credit: HockeyViz

That’s pretty solid. Not great. Not bad. Just solid. I think that’s all the Predators will need to be in this series. The Stars’ offense didn’t necessarily light the world on fire outside of its top three or so players. Dallas scored just 209 goals this season, which places them in a tie for 29th in that category. Seven stars have double-digit goal totals, and three of those players are defensemen. Just four Stars have in excess of 40 points with the team this season. Getting Mats Zuccarello back from injury should help those scoring woes, but he has only played in two games with Dallas since getting traded there from New York at the deadline.

Containing Dallas’ top three players — Benn, Seguin, and Radulov — will be key to the Predators wrapping this series up before it goes too long and gives my ulcers their own ulcers. The Predators had some success doing that in the regular season, thanks to P.K. Subban and Mattias Ekholm. Those two got matched up with Jamie Benn’s line quite a bit, and Benn and Radulov combined for two assists in five regular season games against the Predators. Tyler Seguin, who was split up from Benn, was another story. He had four points in the five games, but I suppose shutting down two of the three ain’t bad.

That top pairing of Ekholm and Subban was hitting their stride down the stretch, and I think they are poised for a great series. Roman Josi had a great year, but he and Ryan Ellis did have their ups and downs in the defensive zone. These two really struggled last postseason, so I’ll be looking for them to up their game a little more this time around. I think this series against a Dallas team with less than impressive forward depth is favorable for them.

In the Year of Our Lord 2019, I think the Predators have finally found a third defensive pairing that can be effective. Thanks to budding star Dante Fabbro, Nashville’s third pairing has stabilized a bit since he entered the lineup. Hamhuis is the best option on the third pair, and Fabbro is already better than Matt Irwin or Yannick Weber. I hope he has a long leash because he WILL make rookie mistakes in the NHL Playoffs. However, he can also go make plays. His goal against Chicago was a fantastic combination of awareness and skill for a kid who was just sitting in Geology 102 a month ago. Unleash HAMBRO and let it ride.

Goaltending is where the Stars worry me the most. Ben Bishop has had a resurgent year, not that he’s necessarily been bad in Dallas. He’s just a serious Vezina Trophy candidate this year. In fact, this may have been the best season of his career. Outside of the traditional numbers, Bishop has been great by more advanced metrics. His high-danger save percentage is 85.45, which is fourth among goalies with 1,500 minutes played, according to Corsica. Bishop’s goals saved above average of 18.21 is second in the league amongst goaltenders with at least 1,500 minutes played. If he gets hot and becomes a wall, the Preds could be in trouble. I’ve seen a goalie catch fire and beat the Predators in the playoffs before — looking at you, Mike Smith — and it is one hell of a helpless feeling.

For the Predators, Pekka Rinne will be on his redemption tour after a disappointing showing in 13 games last postseason. As far as the 2018-19 season goes, Rinne wasn’t Vezina good but he was still damn good. Rinne’s high-danger save percentage ranks second in the NHL this year, and his goals saved above average of 9.64 puts him at ninth in the league. Those numbers are just fine and dandy — another great season for our favorite handsome Finnish man. But Rinne, I think somewhat unfairly, will be judged mainly by how he performs in the postseason. He closed out the season on a high note, and let’s hope that carries over into the playoffs.

Now we’ve reached the truly depressing portion of this preview, special teams. The Stars’ power play operates at a 21.03% clip. That is good for 11th in the league, but that may as well be the best power play the NHL has ever seen as far as the Predators are concerned. That’s because the Nashville power play converts on an impressively bad 12.94% of man advantages. This is the type of thing that could swing a tight series. I don’t expect the Predators’ power play to experience an epiphany, so let’s expect nothing and any goals will be considered found money. Unfortunately, that will put a lot pressure on the Preds’ penalty kill. The good news there is that Nashville’s penalty kill has killed off 82.07% of the power plays it has faced. That’s sixth in the league. The bad news is that the Stars’ first power play unit is pretty damn lethal with Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Alex Radulov, Jason Spezza, and John Klingberg all on the ice at once. My advice? Stay as far away from the penalty box as humanly possible or risk giving Dallas a huge edge.

Final Prediction

I don’t hate this matchup for the Predators, especially considering the options of playing the Jets or the Blues. I think Nashville is fairly well equipped to beat Dallas in a seven-game series. The Nashville defense limits the Dallas offense, the Preds do enough on offense to solve Bishop, and the Predators move right along into the second round. Bishop and special teams help get the Stars a couple of wins, but Nashville wins this series in six games.

Other Predictions

TB over CBJ
TOR over BOS
CAR over WSH
PIT over NYI
STL over WPG
CAL over COL
VGK over SJ

Cup Final
NSH over TB*

*Yeah, I picked with the heart. Sue me.