Anaheim Ducks (first seed, Pacific Division champions) versus Nashville Predators (first wild-card in the West)
The Ducks captured their fourth consecutive Pacific Division title on the final, snow-makeup night of the regular season, and yet this one feels oh so different. This wasn't your typical wire-to-wire first-place job the Ducks are accustomed to. No, this was a dramatic, adversity-filled turnaround season that saw the Ducks go from being nowhere in late December to being the NHL's most dominant club for a long stretch of the second half. And they not only saved their season, but somewhat shockingly caught the rival Los Angeles Kings and won the division. Try 34-10-5 after the Christmas break, that's what the Ducks rolled off en route to another division title. They trailed the first-place Kings by 16 points on Jan. 12 before reeling off the improbable comeback. Which required, in the end, a Sunday-night victory at Washington to get it done by one point in the standings.
OK, everyone in Anaheim take a deep breath because the first-round opponent from Nashville is a tough team to beat. I'm convinced the Predators, if they were brutally honest, feel they match up better against the Ducks than the Kings. Perhaps that's because they beat Anaheim two out of three matchups this season. Then again, their last encounter was Nov. 17. So the Preds, who also had a terrific second half, haven't yet played the newly born Ducks.
How they win
Anaheim: The Preds have made their bones over the years being one of the NHL's stingiest teams, but guess who won the Jennings Trophy this season? That would be the Ducks, who allowed the fewest goals against. It's not just the goalie duo of John Gibson and Frederik Andersen or a very good blue-line corps, but it's a testament to the coaching of Bruce Boudreau, who midway through a season that was looking lost, changed the way his team played and focused on defense-first. Um, it worked. Nashville is a better offensive team than in years past but if Anaheim plays up to its No. 1-ranked defensive ways, this is the X factor in the series.
Nashville: The Preds stand a chance if Pekka Rinne outduels Gibson and/or Andersen. But I think another important factor would be Nashville's deep blue-line shutting down Anaheim's big boys. For my money, the best defense corps in the NHL resides in Nashville and Shea Weber, Roman Josi & Co. have the capability to make life miserable for the Ducks' deep forward corps.
How they lose
Anaheim: The Ducks can lose if they lose the goalie matchup by too great a gap. Gibson and Andersen were unreal this season, but the reality is that both still need to prove themselves as playoff kings. Andersen struggled in the Western Conference finals last season and Gibson, still officially a rookie, is awaiting his first real playoff chance after appearing in four postseason games two years ago.
Nashville: If secondary scoring disappears for the Predators, they are done. This is as dangerous a top-nine forward group as we've seen in Nashville in a few years, at least the way they played the final three months of the season. But it's also the same group that couldn't generate offense in the first half of the season. Which group do we see versus the NHL's No. 1 defensive team in the opening round? Another factor: Rinne rallied after a poor first half but overall this hasn't provided the normal steadiness we've grown to expect in goal from the Finnish veteran. He can't be anything but at this best in the opening round for Nashville to beat Anaheim.
The Ducks finished the season with both the No. 1-ranked power play and penalty kill in the NHL, no small double-whammy in today's day and age.
Anaheim: Ryan Kesler was a two-way warrior again this season and I suspect his assignment will be shutting down Preds No. 1 center Ryan Johansen. If he gets that accomplished while also chipping in with this typical clutch goals, he should get plenty of credit for a series victory.
Nashville: If the Predators upset the Ducks, it's because the Swiss-born Josi finally steps out of Weber's shadow. The Predators blue-line finished second in team scoring with 61 points (14-47) in 81 games and has the ability to generate offense from nowhere.
I want desperately to buy into the narrative of the underdog Predators, who are way better than people realize, of a team with the best blue-line in the league (which I think is true), but the Preds are running into an absolute buzz-saw that dominated the league in the second half while ranking first in special teams, first in goals against and have three scoring lines when healthy. What makes Anaheim scarier than ever is that they finally found a way to split up Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf for most of the season, and thrived in doing so. It makes it all that tougher on Nashville if Weber can't get both big boys on the same line to match up against. The Preds will make this a series but I still see Anaheim en route to greater things. Ducks in 6.