The Nashville Predators’ first round sweep over Chicago caught the hockey world off guard.
On the verge of their first-ever trip to the Western Conference Finals, nobody’s denying that Nashville is for real.
The Predators hold a 3-1 edge over the St. Louis Blues in their second round series with Game 5 looming on Friday night in St. Louis. A victory will give the Preds a spot in the conference finals and some rest heading into that round. However, they’ll be on the road against a desperate Blues team looking to keep their season alive.
While Pekka Rinne deserves much of the credit for his work in the crease (1.33 GAA, .953 save percentage), plenty of it has to also go to their scoring depth up front. But even more of it belongs to their blue line. Of the 11 goals Nashville has scored against St. Louis, nine of them have involved a defenseman in some way. The Predators’ top four of P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm have been incredible through Nashville’s first eight playoff games. Continued excellence from that group will earn the Preds a spot in the next round.
Capitals in trouble with elimination looming
Before the playoffs began, I felt like the Washington Capitals were finally going to overcome their demons and, at the very least, did what the San Jose Sharks did a season ago: slay their old playoff demons and earn a spot in the Stanley Cup Final. The table was set, with a loaded roster from top to bottom that had clinched it’s second straight Presidents’ Trophy. Despite a longer-than-expected series against the upstart Toronto Maple Leafs, it was widely assumed the Caps were going to have to slay the dragon known as the Pittsburgh Penguins in order to shed the underachiever label.
Through four games of the Pens-Caps series? Same old Penguins, same old Capitals, and the same old narrative.
While the Penguins haven’t been quite as dominant as they were during their 2016 Stanley Cup run, it’s clear that they’re in Washington’s head. The Capitals have routinely outshot Pittsburgh and have held the edge in puck possession. The difference has been between the pipes. Marc-Andre Fleury has been outstanding for the Pens, while Vezina Trophy finalist Braden Holtby has been mediocre for much of the postseason.
In addition, Washington’s depth scoring has vanished in this series. Just as it did against the Pens a year ago. Pittsburgh was without Sidney Crosby in Game 4 and still found a way to win. Crosby is now practicing with the team just four days after suffering a concussion, but it’s unknown when he’ll return. Conor Sheary has also missed time for Pittsburgh due to a concussion. Alex Ovechkin was practicing with the third line in an effort to spread out the scoring for the Caps. Game 5 is Saturday night. Time will tell if the Caps will bow out in another playoff disappointment or get their act together and actually rally from a series deficit instead of blowing a series lead like they’ve done so often in the past.
Vegas makes a splash with a KHL signing
Although the NHL’s free agency period doesn’t begin until the beginning of July, that has no bearing on signing players from Europe. The Vegas Golden Knights dipped into that pool when they signed center Vadim Shipachyov from the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia. Shipachyov inked a two-year contract worth $4.5 million a season.
The 30-year-old Shipachyov was one of the premiere scorers in the KHL over the last three seasons with St. Petersburg SKA, tallying 190 points (55 G, 135 A) in 153 games and 57 points (17 G, 40 A) in 54 playoff games. He also has 34 points (13 G, 21 A) in 27 games at the World Championships over the past three seasons. While the KHL is a notch below the NHL in terms of talent level, the fact that he also produced against talented players in the World Championships suggests that he has what it takes to produce in the NHL.
Recent KHL success stories include Chicago’s Artemi Panarin, who won the Calder Trophy in 2016. Montreal’s Alexander Radulov returned to the NHL from the KHL and was a key piece for the Canadiens this season.
The signing itself isn’t a guarantee that Shipachyov will have the same success in the NHL as Panarin or Radulov. However, it shows that the Golden Knights don’t appear to be content to just show up in their inaugural season. Due to expansion draft rules, Vegas should have a competitive team out of the gate. However, based on players that are expected to be made available in June, offense will probably be hard to come by.
Acquiring a play-making center that can challenge for a spot on the Knights’ top two lines could be huge. Especially since most expansion teams historically tend to struggle when it comes to putting the puck in the net.