Stanley Cup Playoff Preview - Nashville vs. San Jose

Stanley Cup Playoff Preview - Nashville vs. San Jose

Stanley Cup Playoff Preview - Nashville Vs. San Jose

(Sports Network) - The Nashville Predators have the opportunity to avenge last year's ousting by the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference quarterfinals. It wasn't the kind of first-round matchup the club was anticipating, however.

Nashville was the frontrunner to earn the conference's No. 1 seed with less than four weeks remaining in the regular season, but a stretch of seven losses in 10 games -- including three costly defeats to rival Detroit -- put the Predators behind the Red Wings in the final standings in both the West as well as the Central Division.

Injuries played a key role in Nashville's late-season swoon, as valued forwards Martin Erat (knee), Steve Sullivan (back spasms) and Scott Hartnell (broken foot) all missed significant time down the stretch. Star center Peter Forsberg also sat out for two weeks in early March due to an upper-body ailment.

The Predators are getting healthier at just the right time, however. Hartnell was back in the lineup for the final two regular-season contests -- both Nashville wins -- and Erat, who hasn't played since March 17, appears to be on the verge of returning at some point during this series.

At full strength, there aren't many teams that can match the Predators' speed and skill on offense. Forsberg (13 goals, 42 assists), still one of the game's premier playmakers and a two-time Stanley Cup champion during his days in Colorado, anchors a stellar top line that also includes Erat (16 goals, 41 assists) and four-time All-Star Paul Kariya (24 goals, 52 assists). The second line, featuring center Jason Arnott (27 goals, 27 assists), J.P. Dumont (21 goals, 45 assists) and Hartnell (22 goals, 17 assists), is nearly as formidable.

Nashville also possesses a top-notch two-way defenseman in Kimmo Timonen (13 goals, 42 assists) and a trio of rising stars in forwards David Legwand (27 goals, 36 assists) and 20-year-old Alexander Radulov (18 goals, 19 assists) and 21-year-old blueliner Shea Weber (17 goals, 23 assists).

The Predators can hold their own on the back end as well. The team ranked third in the NHL in both penalty killing (85.9 percent) and power-play goals allowed (55), and has an elite goaltender in Tomas Vokoun (2.40 GAA, 5 SHO). The 30-year-old Czech was slow to regain his form after missing more than six weeks because of midseason thumb surgery, but played at his usually high level down the stretch.

Vokoun did not play in last season's playoff series with San Jose due to a blood clot condition, a contributing factor in Nashville's five-game loss. The Predators have never won a postseason set in their short history, having not made the playoffs during their first five years of existence and falling to Detroit in six games as an eighth seed in the 2004 quarterfinals.

SAN JOSE SHARKS (5th seed, West)

REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 51-26-5

2006 PLAYOFFS: Defeated Nashville 4-1, conference quarterfinals; lost 4-2 to Edmonton, conference semifinals

San Jose put together a banner campaign, finishing with franchise records for victories (51) and points (107) to earn a spot in the playoffs for the seventh time in the last eight seasons. The club has advanced to the Western semifinals in four of their last five postseason appearances and got as far as the 2004 conference finals during head coach Ron Wilson's first full season at the helm.

The Sharks have the personnel to make another deep playoff run this year. Reigning Hart Trophy winner Joe Thornton leads a balanced offensive attack that finished sixth in the NHL in goals scored (256), while a solid defensive group and goaltending tandem enabled the team to tie for fifth in the league with 197 goals allowed. San Jose also boasts a potent power play that ranked second in the league with 92 goals and a 22.4 percent success rate.

While Thornton will likely relinquish the MVP award to Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby at season's end, the standout center still put together another tremendous year. The 27-year-old led the NHL with 92 assists, while his 114 total points trailed only Crosby for tops in the circuit. Linemate Jonathan Cheechoo (37 goals, 32 assists) couldn't match his 2005-06 league-leading goal total of 56, but is still one of the game's most deadly snipers.

Patrick Marleau (32 goals, 46 assists) is as good a second-line center as you'll find, and the Sharks got another proven finisher for the playoff grind when they acquired veteran right wing Bill Guerin (36 goals, 20 assists) at the trade deadline. The 36-year-old had eight goals in 16 games following the switch, despite being hampered late in the year with a groin injury.

Another deadline deal brought along veteran blueliner Craig Rivet (7 goals, 17 assists), who bolstered a young defensive corps and had a plus-8 rating in 17 games after coming over from Montreal. Twenty-year-old Marc-Edouard Vlasic (3 goals, 23 assists) turned in a terrific rookie season, while 22-year-old Matt Carle (11 goals, 31 assists) and Christian Ehrhoff (10 goals, 23 assists) were key contributors on San Jose's highly-effective power play.

Wilson has the luxury of having two quality goaltenders to choose from. Evgeni Nabokov had a strong 2.29 goals-against average and seven shutouts in 49 starts, while Vesa Toskala (2.35 GAA, 4 SHO) posted an excellent 26-10-1 overall record. The pair combined for 11 shutouts, which tied Nashville for the second-most in the league.

Toskala started all five games in last year's playoff series with the Predators and allowed one goal or less in three of San Jose's four victories.

MATCHUP

This has all the makings of an outstanding series and almost certainly won't be as one-sided as last year's matchup. With two teams capable of lighting up the scoreboard and the two best centers in the Western Conference going head- to-head, this should be one of the most exiting of this year's opening round tilts.

Nashville has the ability to neutralize San Jose's potent power play, but the Sharks have the offensive weapons to counter the Predators' wide-open attack as well. Vokoun can decide the outcome of a series when he's on top of his game, while San Jose's defense was virtually impenetrable late in the season.

The Predators took three of the four regular-season meetings between the clubs, but their inconsistent play down the stretch is cause for concern. Although the team is finally close to being at full strength, whether it's able to quickly jell into a cohesive unit for a tough series is a question that still needs to be answered.

Conversely, San Jose played as well as any team over the season's final month. The Sharks went 13-1-3 from March 4 on and shut out the opposition four times over those final 17 games.

San Jose's tighter defense and the presence of Wilson, who's been very successful in the playoffs, behind the bench could signal a quick and disappointing end to Nashville's once-promising season.

Sports Network predicted outcome: Sharks in 6

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