The Predators and the Sharks, just like everyone expected, right? No, it certainly wasn't. It's a new day in the Western Conference as the Sharks and Predators face off in the second round after dispatching Pacific Division favorites the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings. San Jose beating L.A. wasn't nearly as big an upset, if at all, than Nashville taking out the Pacific Division-champion Ducks. Within that Predators dressing room on Wednesday night after a 2-1 Game 7 win in Anaheim, there was a true sense of accomplishment, but also a realization they had very little time to refocus. "We need to realize we're moving on and we still have work after this," said Predators captain Shea Weber. No rest for the Preds as Game 1 in San Jose goes Friday night at SAP Center. "They'll definitely be more rested, but hopefully they'll be more rusty, too," said Predators center Mike Fisher. For Nashville, it's a second-round date with yet another big-boy California team. "I feel like they provide a similar challenge as Anaheim," Predators goalie Pekka Rinne said of the Sharks. "Their top players are some of the top players in the league, and really dangerous individuals. Their power play is very good. Very similar to me at least [to Anaheim]."
How they win
San Jose: An NHL coach after the Sharks beat the Kings in the opening round told me, "They're the best team in the NHL right now." He said if you looked at how the Sharks have been playing in the final month of the regular season in games that mattered, it was a telltale sign of where their game was headed right before the playoffs. Boy, did the Kings ever find that out. And what killed the Kings was the Sharks' foot speed -- they were a step ahead of L.A. all series long in getting to loose pucks and open space. Another key factor is that the Sharks have been home and cooled since last Friday night after eliminating the Kings, while the Preds had to slug it out over seven games to get by Anaheim. That's no small factor at this time of year to enter a series with full energy and healthy bodies.
Nashville: The Predators won the season series 2-0-1 against the Sharks, and I don't think they mind this matchup at all. The key for the Predators will be to slow down Joe Thornton's top line (with wingers Joe Pavelski and Tomas Hertl), which the Kings had very little success doing. That's where Nashville's top D-pair of Shea Weber and Roman Josi comes in. They'll be matched up, no doubt, against Thornton's No. 1 line all series long. If Weber and Josi can duplicate the kind of success they had in the opening round against the likes of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, the Predators can win this series.
How they lose
San Jose: Truth be told, as poised and confident and ultimately successful Martin Jones was in goal for the Sharks against his former team in the opening round, he was rarely ever tested on a consistent basis. The Sharks' blue-line corps did such a great job limiting time and space and rebounds on L.A. But my question is whether the Predators can muster more traffic and shot attempts at Jones, and if so just how the youngster will react. He might react just fine. But in his first season as a No. 1 goalie, we've yet to see him truly have to steal a game in the NHL playoffs.
Nashville: What's left in the tank? Nashville not only went the maximum seven against a physical Anaheim squad but they also had to put on the miles to do it, with four-hour flights back and forth between cities, which is just as taxing as the hockey itself. Combine that with San Jose's short series with the Kings and short travel, and you've got a team in Nashville that's definitely taxed and getting just one day off before Game 1 with the Sharks. Another way the Preds lose is if their power play doesn't wake up. It was held to just one power-play goal in seven games with Anaheim. Given San Jose's power-play strength, that's a mismatch in the making on special teams.
That's how many shots the Predators blocked in the Game 7 win over Anaheim, an example of a team that was willing to sacrifice all to limit Grade A chances. It's a lot of what the Sharks are going to see. Nashville will try to keep San Jose to the perimeter, box them out as it did so well against the Ducks, and block a ton of shots. It's not pretty, but it's effective.
San Jose: Brent Burns outplayed the Kings' Drew Doughty in the opening round, and the onus will be on the electrifying Sharks defenseman to have an impact at both ends of the ice if they are going to advance to the Western Conference finals. Especially if Thornton's No. 1 line is less productive in this series because of Weber and Josi, whatever Burns can do offensively could be an X factor.
Nashville: Look for the Predators to get outshot and outchanced on most nights in this series. Predators goalie Pekka Rinne, who had an up-and-down season, needs to pick up where he left off in Games 6-7 of the opening round when he shut the door on Anaheim. If Nashville beats San Jose, it's because Rinne will have stolen a game or two.
It really concerns me just how much hockey -- how much physical hockey -- the Preds had to play in the opening round, not to mention the taxing travel. The Sharks played a short series and were able to regroup. You hate to count out a Preds team that just beat the best team in the Pacific, but I think the Sharks are poised to prevail. Sharks in 7.