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Predators vs. Sharks, Round One Preview

Our first playoff preview digs into the eagerly awaited #4 vs. #5 matchup in the West, between the Nashville Predators and San Jose Sharks. Last year, these two teams met in the first round and the Sharks dispatched the Preds in five games, largely attributed to two factors; the first being Nashville's inability to stay out the penalty box, and secondly, the advantage the Sharks had at the center position. Since that time, the Predators have upgraded significantly at the center spot (a couple guys named Arnott and Forsberg come to mind), and they've done a better job at staying on the positive side of the special-teams equation as well. Both teams have ranked among the NHL elite all season long, and are slotted 1st and 3rd in mc79hockey's Adjusted Goal Differential. But what does my analysis say about how these two teams match up?

For table explanation, scroll down to the bottom of this post.

How Nashville can score: The Predators' strength seems to be in perimeter scoring - their shooting percentage from outside of 10 feet is above average in all the different range slots, especially from 50+ feet, where they score almost twice as much as the rest of the league. The Sharks goaltending might well have a weakness there, as their save percentage in the 50-59 foot range is second-worst among playoff teams. That could translate into key goals for skilled Nashville blueliners like Shea Weber and Kimmo Timonen.

How San Jose can score: The vast majority (3.22 out of 3.74 total) of San Jose's goals are expected to come in the 10-29 foot range, where the perfect combination comes into play. The Sharks generate more shots there than average, they score at a higher than average rate, the Preds give up a relatively high number of those shots, and their goaltenders fare poorly in stopping them. The 10-19 and 20-29 foot ranges are the only ones in which Nashville's goaltending is subpar, yet those are exactly the ones in which San Jose is the strongest. That, to me, spells trouble for the Predators.

Summary: This picture is pretty ugly for Nashville - it says that on neutral ice, the Sharks would be expected to outscore the Predators 3.74 to 3.01. If we use Jeff Sagarin's rule of thumb, giving the home team in each game a credit of 0.25 Goals, San Jose still leads 3.74/3.26 for the games in Nashville, and dominates 3.99/3.01 at home.

Outside the Numbers: There are some factors that aren't reflected in these numbers that might play a role in this series. Nashville winger Martin Erat may well return for the playoff opener, and Scott Hartnell came back for the final two games of the regular season. If they (along with newly returned Scott Nichol) are able to play at or near 100%, perhaps that 0.73 goals per game differential gets reduced, but I highly doubt they're enough to swing the balance of power in Nashville's favor, even presuming all three are able to contribute effectively.

The Prediction: In all honesty, as much as I would love to see the Preds make a deep run in this postseason, this matchup doesn't look good for them. Based on what I'm seeing, everything would have to go right for Nashville to make this a coin flip, so I'm going with San Jose in 6 games.
Table Key:
Shots For = average of shots per game by that team, from the range specified.
Shots Factor = a factor representing how many shots the opposing defense yields in that range (1.24 = 24% more than average, 0.89 = 11% less than average).
Exp. Shots = "Shots For" times "Shots Factor", how many shots are expected to occur within each range.
Sht % = The fraction of shots from within that range result in goals.
Sht % Factor = a measure reflecting how the opposing goaltender handles shots from a given range (0.74 = 26% fewer goals than average, 1.53 = 53% more than average)
Exp. Sht % = "Sht %" times "Sht % Factor", the expected shooting percentage for this matchup.
Exp. Goals = "Exp. Shots" times "Exp. Sht %", the number of goals per game expected from each range.
Values indicative of significantly higher goal-scoring are shaded green, values for lower goal-scoring shaded pink.
All figures represent exponential moving averages, giving greater weight to recent performance. Empty-net goals and Penalty Shots are excluded.

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