If any No. 1 seed should know not to overlook an opponent that was last into the playoffs, the Nashville Predators fit that bill.
After all, Nashville got the last invitation to the NHL postseason ball last season and then stuck around all the way into the middle of June, winning the Western Conference title before falling to the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals.
This time, the Predators were first in line for the postseason, winning their first Presidents’ Trophy with 117 points. They are in the position of overwhelming favorites as they welcome the Colorado Avalanche to Bridgestone Arena for Thursday night’s opener of the Western quarterfinals.
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“There’s so many good teams, it doesn’t matter if you’re eighth or first,” Nashville captain Roman Josi said. “You saw what happened last year. For us, it’s not a different approach. We know the first round, it doesn’t matter who we are going to play, it’s going to be extremely hard.”
Some would say that Josi is just being politically correct when it comes to this series. Nashville (53-18-11) owns 10 consecutive wins over Colorado (43-30-9) dating to the last week of the 2015-16 season. It outscored the Avalanche 17-8 in four wins this season, including two last month in Denver during a stretch in which it ripped off 14 wins in 15 games.
Despite all of the Predators’ advantages — arguably the most depth in the NHL, the best 1-through-4 defense corps in the league and home ice — there is a window through which Colorado can climb to make this a series and perhaps pull the upset.
First things first: Avalanche goalie Jonathan Bernier must be the best player on the ice in at least one game. While that might seem laughable, since many fans remember him allowing four goals on 16 shots in Nashville’s Game 6 win over Anaheim last spring in the conference finals, Bernier actually has a good track record against the Predators.
In his career, Bernier is 9-4-0 in 14 starts with a 2.37 goals-against average, a .917 save percentage and a pair of shutouts. With Semyon Varlamov on the shelf for the season’s remainder, Bernier is the man in net, and he came up big in the regular-season finale, making 32 saves to beat St. Louis 5-2.
“I think if we play the way we played tonight, we have a good chance,” Bernier said. “If you want to get further, you have to beat the best team. We start with the best team.”
For the Avalanche to beat the best, they might want to do something about Filip Forsberg, who has shredded them in his career. In 20 games, Forsberg has 13 goals and 11 assists. That includes an overtime game-winner on March 4 in Denver and two goals in a return engagement March 16.
Secondly, Hart Trophy candidate Nathan MacKinnon must play like it against Nashville’s top two defense pairings of Josi and Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm and P.K. Subban. MacKinnon ended a nine-game goalless streak against St. Louis. If he finds his scoring touch, Colorado’s chances increase.
Finally, the Avalanche must win at least one game in Bridgestone, where they’ll have to deal with arguably the loudest crowd in the league and perhaps even dodge the flying catfish.
“It’s the best team in the league this year and we know they have all the pressure,” Colorado right winger Mikko Rantanen said. “It’s going to be a huge test for us.”