By Joel Silverberg / @JoelSilverberg
Tuesday brought us NHL hockey games for the first time since March. Three exhibition games were played from the two hub cities in Toronto and Edmonton as the league continues what has so far been a successful bubble experiment to conduct the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
All 24 teams will scrimmage through Thursday before the best-of-5 qualifying round begins on Saturday. The Nashville Predators will face the Dallas Stars Thursday afternoon in Edmonton before beginning their opening series against the Arizona Coyotes on Sunday.
Nashville was on a three-game win streak before the shutdown and had won nine of its last 14. The Preds split two regular season meetings with Arizona with the third being canceled due to COVID-19. While the Coyotes finished the regular season 23rd in goals per game, Arizona was tied for third in goal against with Antii Raanta and Darcy Kuemper splitting time in net.
Having not played a full game in more than four months, here are some of the lingering questions for the opening series ahead of Sunday.
1. What’s the key matchup of the series?
Nashville’s versatile offense against Arizona’s tenacious defense.
Nashville has more areas on the ice where it can produce offense. Roman Josi nearly averaged a point per game with 65 in 69 games to earn himself a nod as a Norris Trophy finalist. Fellow blueliner Ryan Ellis was fourth on the team in points despite appearing in less than 50 games.
Nashville should also have a healthy Viktor Arvidsson, who missed 12 games. In a series where scoring could be a premium, the Predators will want to take advantage of its perimeter offense while having a physical forward like Arvidsson who’s willing to survey the crease and score off of rebounds.
Arizona sits at third in the NHL in goals allowed per game, yet the Coyotes give up the ninth-most shots on goal in the league. That doesn’t happen without quality goaltending and a strong penalty kill. Arizona is fifth in the league when shorthanded.
In addition, the acquisition of Taylor Hall has proven worthwhile. Hall has 27 points in 35 games for the Coyotes this year–easily the best scoring average on Arizona’s roster. The former MVP was quiet down the stretch, going pointless in four of his last five games, however. Getting his production back along with a spark from Phil Kessel and Nick Schmaltz will be imperative as well.
2. Can the JOFA line produce for Nashville?
Nashville’s top forward line of Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg and Arvidsson has not put up the type of numbers the franchise is used to seeing in years past. All three forwards are down from last year’s scoring averages and all three have missed time at one point or another. Predators head coach John Hynes plans to give that group a full run again and is hoping they can recalibrate the line to produce the same type of offense that’s helped carry the franchise over the previous three seasons.
However, being made to adjust the lineup has forced Johansen to shoot more. In 68 games this year, he scored 14 goals before the rest of the season was canceled. He scored 14 goals in all of last season in 80 games and was on pace for his highest goal-scoring season since Nashville traded for him four and a half years ago. Johansen has been criticized in the past for not pulling the trigger and looking for the setup play rather than the scoring one. Having a slightly bigger shooter mindset, combined with the reunion of Nashville’s top line could add another degree to that group’s effectiveness.
3. Who starts in goal?
Pekka Rinne is the veteran with 89 postseason starts, a Vezina Trophy and virtually every goaltending record in franchise history. He’d also have a Conn Smythe Trophy under his belt had Nashville captured the Stanley Cup in 2017. However, this season has been the worst of his career. It’s the first time Rinne has failed to record a .900 save percentage or a sub-3.00 goals against average. He lost four of his final five starts of the season and gave up eight goals in less than 50 minutes in a loss to Edmonton in his most recent appearance back on March 2.
Then there’s upstart Juuse Saros, who won 12 of his final 17 starts before the season was halted, including four shutouts in that span. Saros has never started a playoff game though he’s made seven appearances in Rinne’s relief over the past three postseasons. His numbers were subpar through December, but improved significantly since. His 40 appearances and 34 starts are both career highs. Hynes was noncommittal on a starting goalie earlier in the month, but has acknowledged Nashville will need both guys to win, especially with a condensed schedule to move things more quickly.
Rinne has the experience while Saros may have the immediate upside. The break might also create a fresh start for Rinne, who was on fire through his first ten starts of the season (8-0-2, 2.07 GAA, .923 SV%, two shutouts). While Hynes opts to plead the fifth on who starts, Thursday’s scrimmage might give some clarity as to who appears between the pipes first on Sunday.