(Originally Posted 4/9/07 on http://www.PredNation.com)
Flashback to last season: the Nashville Predators were coming off their best season in franchise history and were going into the playoffs with the fourth seed and home-ice advantage against one of the hottest teams in the league in San Jose. There were questions due to the injuries to Vokoun, Sullivan, Legwand, and Zidlicky. The results- Nashville was eliminated in five games. They were obviously over-matched physically and found themselves in too many 5-on-3 situations.
For those that enjoy fate, or parallels, there are definitely some odd similarities. Again, the team has set franchise records (in wins), and go into the playoffs as the fourth seed to play the hot team in San Jose. Additionally, Sullivan and Erat are currently out with injuries, while Hartnell and Scott Nichol are just coming back from injury.
So, what’s different this year? First, Nashville is a lot bigger down the middle. Last year, Nashville sported an injured Legwand, Mike Sillinger, and eventually Yanic Perrault (also slowed by injury). Of course, the Predators also had Jared Smithson, Scott Nichol, and Vernon Fiddler last year too. This year, Legwand is healthy and is having a breakout year offensively while leading the team in +/-. Jason Arnott was brought in during the offseason and Peter Forsberg was acquired at the trade deadline. All three are healthy and playing great hockey. Nashville has modified their style to be more aggressive and roll three scoring lines (when everyone’s healthy). The addition of J.P. Dumont and Alexander Radulov has really paid dividends toward that move.
Defensively, Shea Weber is no longer a rookie. Last year, he had played less than thirty games going into the playoffs. He has become one of the best defensemen on the team and his pairing with Kimmo Timonen at ES and on the PP has provided an excellent veteran presence for him on the ice. Ryan Suter has also stepped his game up a level. Marek Zidlicky will hopefully be able to play in the playoffs for an extended period of time this year, although his offensive slump is very concerning. Greg Zanon has been a blessing as a sixth defenseman that steadies our PK unit and is our shot blocking leader. Dan Hamhuis is still the very good two-way player that we’ve all come to expect. Not to be left out, Vitaly Vishnevski was brought in to add depth and extra physicality when necessary. Overall, while the group is still young and they do make the occasional mistake, they play a pretty strong, puck-moving game.
In goal, we have Tomas Vokoun this year. We also have an improved Chris Mason. Vokoun is completely back to his normal self yet, but he’s still playing pretty well. If he does falter, the team knows what it has in Chris Mason and is equally comfortable playing in front of him.
Looking across the ice to San Jose, we see a few changes there as well. Bill Guerin was brought in at the trade deadline. Given his past success and familiarity against Nashville, this certainly should be a focal point for the Nashville coaches. Of course, they still have Cheechoo, Thornton, and Marleau. Contrary to Scott Burnside’s analysis at ESPN, expect the line of Kariya, Legwand, and Tootoo (Erat, when he returns) to be matched up against the Marleau line. Initially, I expect the line of Arnott, Dumont, and Fiddler (Sullivan, if becomes available) to be given the assignment of Joe Thornton. This leaves the Scott Hartnell, Peter Forsberg, and Alexander Radulov line to match up against San Jose’s third line. This is where I believe Nashville has the slight edge with the forwards.
Defensively, San Jose boasts two very gifted rookies in Matt Carle and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Kyle McLaren and Scott Hannan provide a veteran presence to another overall young set of defensemen with a lot of talent. Top to bottom, however, I believe Nashville has a slight edge in overall depth. This opinion is based upon my belief that of the two almost equal groups, I think Kimmo Timonen is the best defenseman on the ice for this series.
In goal, San Jose has gone back to Nabokov while having Toskala in reserve. This tandem is equally as good as the Predators, and maybe even slightly better if Toskala is fully recovered from his groin problem.
Mr. Burnside has predicted the Sharks to win in seven games. Given the talent on both teams, that’s most definitely as good of an educated guess as any. However, I think he’s misinformed regarding the matchup of Legwand and Thornton as well as the pairing of Kariya and Forsberg during even-strength situations. If my opinions of those items are correct, I like the matchup of Legwand against Marleau from a Nashville perspective. I also like the matchup of Arnott and Dumont against the Thornton and Cheechoo line- especially if Sullivan does return. Most importantly, I believe that the veteran presence that Forsberg, Arnott, Kariya, Dumont, and Timonen (and history of playoff success of that group minus Timonen) will prove to be the edge in this well fought series.
I will predict that Nashville wins in six games.