The Nashville Predators fell to the 2nd wild card last night by losing to the Arizona Coyotes. This means instead of playing the Calgary Flames in the first round, they will head to Colorado to play the Avalanche.

It’s not an ideal scenario for the Preds. The Avalanche finished as the best team in the Western Conference with 119 points, stampeding their way through the Central Division and scoring a conference high 312 goals in the process. Many pegged the Avs as a Stanley Cup favorite at the beginning of the season and they have played the part, to say the least.

But still… neither the Flames nor the Avalanche would have been easy matchups for the Predators. The Flames are one of the best defensive teams in the league and just recently beat the Preds in overtime in Bridgestone Arena. Calgary allowed the fewest goals of any team in the Western Conference (208). In a sense, the Preds’ last-second opponent swap had them avoid the league’s best defensive team for one of its very best offensive ones.

Out of the frying pan, and so forth.

The Avs boast an incredible defense as well. Cale Makar, Devon Toews, Erik Johnson, and Sam Girard round out their top four. All are offensive minded defensemen, but they form a tough group to break through in the Colorado zone.

The bottom line is this: the Nashville Predators have their work cut out for them. And the prospects of doing all of this without Juuse Saros make it that much harder.

Still, I think there’s a path through for the Preds. Here’s three things that need to happen for Nashville to beat Colorado in this series.

Continued success against Darcy Kuemper

The Avalanche are likely to go with ace goaltender Darcy Kuemper to start this series. He’s started 57 games this year, earning a record of 37-12-4. His overall save percentage is .921, which ranks 5th in the NHL, and his even strength save percentage of .928 ranks 4th in the NHL.

Kuemper’s been very good for the Avs this year and there’s no reason they won’t go with him. But the Predators have had success against Kuemper recently.

In 11 career games against Nashville, Kuemper has a 5-2-3 record and a .909 save percentage. The save percentage is key here, because it’s significantly lower than his career average of .918.

Matt Duchene Darcy Kuemper
Matt Duchene has three goals in two games against Darcy Kuemper this season.

In the Preds’ last two games against Kuemper, both this season, Nashville has had no problem scoring goals. They scored four goals on Thursday night in their shootout win, and they scored five goals on January 11th in an overtime win.

Keumper has stopped 60 of 69 shots in his last two games against Nashville for a save percentage of .869. That’s a plus for the Predators. It shows that Nashville’s forwards are seeing the net well and likely have the confidence they need to put up some goals in this series.

Preds defense must stay home to prevent counter

The Colorado Avalanche are very fast. They use counter attacks and odd-man rushes well. Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Valeri Nichushkin, Cale Makar… all fast players that can read counter attacks well.

And if you’ve watched the Preds this year, you’ve probably been frustrated by how often the Preds give up odd man rushes and counter attacks. It’s been a problem. Nashville blueliners jumping up into the offensive zone are just one turnover away from handing the puck to opposing forwards for the breakaway.

But when it comes to playing straight up, five on five defense in their own zone, the Preds have been decent, as the chart in the tweet below suggests:

In order to manage the Colorado attack, the Preds will have to limit odd man rushes given up and continue to play stout defense in their own zone. If they give their goalie, whether it’s Dave Rittich or Connor Ingram, a chance to see the puck, they should be able to limit scoring.

Part of this means that the Nashville blueliners will need to stay back more. Unless the name on the back of the jersey says “Josi”, the Preds’ defensemen need to forget about trying to pinch into the offensive zone. Let one of your many top-notch, career-year scoring forwards worry about trying to put goals in the net. It’s more important that the Preds’ defense focus on stopping Colorado rather than trying to create offense.

Penalties have to decrease… this one is most important

Penalties have been a major problem for the Preds this season. They finished 1st in the NHL in penalty minutes (1,035), penalties taken (391), and penalty minutes per game (12:37). They also led the league with 61 major penalties. No other team had more than 36.

Meanwhile the Colorado Avalanche have the 7th best power play by success rate (24.0%) and the most power play goals scored (67). They are so dangerous in this area. Their setup provides easy lanes for guys like Rantanen, Makar, and Mackinnon to get looks on net. Their crisp passing is hard to keep up with. Their hockey IQ is unmatched when it comes to finding ways to create space for dangerous shooters.

In short, every power play for the Avs is going to be terrifying for the Preds.

The only solution is to limit the number of Colorado power plays.

Even if the Preds reduce their penalty minutes from 12 minutes to 10 minutes, that’s doing something, though it likely needs to be much lower than that to make a difference. The Preds do not want to find themselves chasing the game and they can’t even do that if they are on the penalty kill all night.

If the Preds can manage to stay out of the box, tighten up their defensive structure, not get caught on odd man rushes, and continue to score on Darcy Kuemper, they have a shot to make this a series.

— Featured image via Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY Sports —