With the Vancouver Canucks 2-1 victory over the Nashville Predators, the 2010-11 season is already one of the three most successful in franchise history. Only twice before have the Canucks advanced as far as the third round – the first time in 1981-82, where they were swept in the Finals by the New York Islanders powerhouse, and then again in 1993-94, which culminated in heartbreak as the New York Rangers won a seven game series for the Stanley Cup.
Before we move on to the third round, however, I thought it would be worth looking at a couple of things that interested me from the second round.
Impotence and Excellence
The former refers to the Nashville power play, the latter to the Canucks’ penalty kill. Game Six, the deciding contest in this now concluded series, once again turned on the Predators inability to defeat Vancouver’s penalty-killers. Five times, the Predators were offered the man advantage in an extremely close game, and five times they were unable to capitalize.
Over the series as a whole, the Predators converted power-play opportunities at an appalling 1-for-23 clip (4.35%). Their power play unit was outscored by their penalty-killers by a factor of 2:1. The other way of looking at this is that after a shaky first round against Chicago, the Canucks killed 95.7% of their penalties against the Predators, and now sit at a respectable 86/0% success rate while down a man.
The key penalty-killers are well known: guys like Kesler, Burrows, Hamhuis and Bieksa, but the supporting players have been key as well. Forward pairings Mason Raymond and Jannik Hansen, as well as Chris Higgins and Maxim Lapierre have all seen significant time, and every defenseman not named Andrew Alberts has played at least a bit while the Canucks were down a man. Then there is that other guy…
The series against Chicago was intense, but no player on the Canucks’ roster was under more pressure than Roberto Luongo, and when he struggled in the back half of the series against the ‘Hawks he faced a torrent of criticism.
Yet, Luongo persevered, and since coming into Game Six against Chicago (in relief of Cory Schneider), Vancouver’s franchise goaltender has posted a 0.938 SV%. At times the Predators struggled to generate offense, but Luongo was tested over that spell: in both of the last two games against Chicago (particularly Game Seven) and occasionally against Nashville, where he recorded a 20-save shutout in Game One and 44 saves in Game Two.
The Fallen Predators
Despite their loss to Vancouver, this season also stands out as the most successful in Predators’ history – a Round One victory over Anaheim propelled them into the second round for the first time in franchise history. They saw a lot of notable performances along the way.
David Legwand, the player Nashville got in the 1998 Draft instead of Vincent Lecavalier, has in many ways come to personify the franchise. Not only has the 30-year old played his entire 768-game career with the club, but his style of game – gritty, defensively responsible, capable of scoring but far from certain to – is emblematic of the entire team. His 22:06 of ice-time every night led the team’s forwards. He scored six goals in 12 playoff games, played against the best opponents night in and night out (and did a phenomenal job of shadowing the Sedins), and scored not just two shorthanded goals against the Canucks, but also the Predators’ only goal of Game Six. Nobody could have expected more.
Joel Ward got a lot of attention in this series, and led the Predators in playoff scoring with seven goals and 13 points. He had just 10 goals over the entire regular season. On the back end, Nashville’s top defense pairing of Ryan Suter and Shea Weber lived up to the hype, playing nearly 30 minutes per night and offering strong play in all three zones.
Pekka Rinne has faced some criticism for his play between the pipes over this post-season, but in both of these series I have been positively impressed with him. His overall save percentage is a mediocre 0.907, but that fails to take into account how bad the Predators’ penalty kill has been. At even-strength, Rinne’s 0.935 SV% is better than not only Luongo (0.931) but even Dwayne Roloson (0.934) – arguably the most valuable player in the league through two playoff rounds.
All that remains now is to see who wins in the San Jose/Detroit series. If it is the Sharks, a bunch of conventional wisdom about chokers and playoff flops will need to be abandoned, and that can’t be a bad thing.