When will hockey return? Well, no one really knows.
Will the NHL be able to conclude the regular season? The league certainly hopes so, but it’s not definitive.
What about the playoffs? Now, that seems more probable, but it’s not without at least some doubt and possible logistical issues.
Throughout this pause, there has been no shortage of simulations. It’s not the real thing, but computer simulation is a nod to the age we’re living in. People have flocked to e-sports. Of course, the results from a video game are not necessarily how a playoff series would go in real life. But people have paid a fair amount of attention to various articles and videos published regarding simulation results because hey, what else are we supposed to do?
The Hockey News ran a regular-season conclusion and playoff simulation via EA Sports’ NHL 20. Believe it or not, the Nashville Predators made the playoffs and were crowned champions, beating the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games.
But what was eye-catching – or amusing, depending how you look at it – was the way the Predators charged to the Stanley Cup Final. Nashville swept their first-round series against the St. Louis Blues, swept their second-round series against the Colorado Avalanche and were matched up against the Calgary Flames in the Conference Final, where, you guessed it, they swept that series too.
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A 16-2 playoff record with the first loss not coming until the Final is music to Predators fans’ ears. In reality, such a historically dominant playoff run may be wishful thinking. But going by the numbers, how would the Predators fare in a first-round series?
For this article, we’ll use points percentage to determine the standings, which has emerged as a popular option to set the 2020 playoff matchups. Therefore, the Predators own the Western Conference’s first wild-card and are pitted against the Vegas Golden Knights. So, without further ado, let’s look at how this potential series would look.
The season series was just about as close as it could have been. Nashville and Vegas faced-off against one another three times during 2019-20. The Predators finished with a 1-1-1 record against the league’s relatively fresh-faced expansion team.
Defensively, the Golden Knights have played well all season, with no exception against the Predators. Until slipping to 16th, Nashville ranked in the top-10 for goals-for throughout the majority of the season, but it didn’t exactly show during their battles with the Golden Knights. Vegas held the Predators to 2.67 goals-for during the season series, an offence that usually averages more than 3 goals per game.
It could be argued that a sample of just three games is too small and not a great representation. But even including the 2018-19 season series, the results are still very much similar. Over the previous six games against the Golden Knights, the Predators have averaged 2.50 goals per game. Vegas has held Nashville to just two goals or fewer in three of the last six contests. So, it’s safe to say that the Predators would need their own defence to keep pace in order for the series to stay competitive.
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During the season series, the Predators’ defence allowed an average of 3.0 goals per game. But again, expanding the sample size to include the 2018-19 season series, the Predators’ goals-against average (GAA) drops to 2.67. Looking at the simple numbers, it would suggest that you’re unlikely to see many, if any, blowout games during this series.
It may pain Predators’ fans to hear, but we need to talk about the special teams. Don’t worry though, it’s not as bad as you might think (well, the power play was, but the penalty kill was impressive). Let’s get the bad news out of the way first. The Predators had 12 power-play opportunities against the Golden Knights this season and managed just one goal, equalling an 8.3 percent efficiency.
Now that’s bad, but unfortunately, it gets worse. That one goal the Predators scored on the power play this season was the only power-play goal the Predators have scored against the Golden Knights, ever. That’s right, all-time the Predators have faced the Golden Knights nine times, with a total of 29 man-advantages and just one goal to show for it.
The 0-for-15 debacle that the Predators experienced during last season’s playoffs seemed so improbable that a performance that bad would never be seen again from Nashville. But 1-for-29 all-time doesn’t exactly instill confidence when predicting whether the same life-less power play could be seen again.
As promised, there is a bright spot, which is the Predators penalty kill. Many are aware that Nashville’s penalty kill hit a snag this season. But against the Golden Knights’ man advantage during 2019-20, the Predators were successful 90 percent of the time. Although, Nashville’s penalty kill has always been fairly successful against the Golden Knights, with the Predators holding an 83.9 percent efficiency all-time.
Taking fewer penalties is always a key to success; it’s uttered so much that it’s become a cliché. Obviously, the Predators will want to avoid the penalty box, but if they do find themselves in there during this hypothetical series, they have shown they’re equipped to bail out the guilty party.
Players to Watch For
There weren’t any real individual standouts for the Predators when facing the Golden Knights this season. No Predator had more than one goal during the three games. Ryan Ellis tied Roman Josi for the most points during the season series, notching three points in the two games he played while Josi played in all three games and tallied three assists.
The Predators’ top forwards have historically struggled against the Golden Knights. Filip Forsberg has mustered just two points in his seven career games against Vegas and he’s not alone. Ryan Johansen has two points in eight games and Craig Smith has just one point in nine games.
Nashville’s top performers against the Golden Knights – aside from the usual suspect, Josi – are Nick Bonino, Viktor Arvidsson and Kyle Turris. But their numbers aren’t mind-blowing. Bonino should be excused because he isn’t relied on as heavily as Arvidsson and Turris for scoring, but Bonino still leads the Predators with three goals. Statistically, Arvidsson and Turris are the Predators’ biggest threats against the Golden Knights, with both recording four points in seven games.
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The Predators would need their star players to buck the trend of minimal production against the Golden Knights for them to come out on top.
Conversely, several Golden Knights’ players have hurt the Predators recently. This season, three Vegas players finished with three points or more in the three games against Nashville.
The Predators would have to pay close attention to Riley Smith in particular. Smith played in all three games against the Predators, where he recorded three goals and one assist. Mark Stone also tallied four points in those three games and Max Pacioretty had three points in three games.
Who Starts in Net?
Pekka Rinne is the experienced, former Vezina-winning goaltender who has more than earned the right to start. However, the young backup, Juuse Saros has played so well this season that he could give the coaches something to think about.
Although Saros struggled during his lone game against the Golden Knights this season – allowing four goals on 30 shots in an overtime loss – the young goalie’s career stats are much stronger. The 25-year-old has started in five career games against the Golden Knights, and has compiled a 3-1-1 record, a .944 save percentage (SV%) and a 2.19 GAA. And as a fun fact, Saros has actually started and played more games against Vegas than Rinne.
However, Rinne started in two of the three games against the Golden Knights this season and he played phenomenally. The 37-year-old posted a .945 SV% and a 2.02 GAA when facing the foes from Sin City. He is also armed with impressive career stats of his own against the Golden Knights. During his career, Rinne owns a .937 SV% and a 2.23 GAA versus Vegas. The future Hall-of-Famer is the Predators’ clear choice for their hypothetical first-round matchup.
Both the Predators and Golden Knights are top teams in the Western Conference. Both consider themselves contenders and both have prioritized winning now. Vegas would obviously own the home-ice advantage as the higher seed, but that may suit the Predators just fine. Nashville was better on the road than they were at home. However, the Golden Knights were the fifth-best home team in the league this season, so it could be a “careful what you wish for” type situation.
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No one would be shocked if either team advanced. A Predators and Golden Knights series could be one of the tightest matchups in the first round. The only thing that would be surprising is if this series went any less than six games.