Colorado Avalanche vs. Nashville Predators Series Preview: Expect a Dominating Win from Colorado

NHL handicapper Jason Yamaguchi offers his prediction and best bet for the first-round matchup between the Avalanche and the Predators.
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Colorado Avalanche vs. Nashville Predators Series Preview: Expect a Dominating Win from Colorado

Through much of the regular season, the Colorado Avalanche were widely considered the favorites to finish atop the league and win the President's Trophy. Six losses in their final seven games eliminated their chances of accomplishing that, but they have their sights set on a much bigger prize. To that end, their first task is to knock out the Nashville Predators, who blew a 4-0 lead to the Arizona Coyotes on the final day of the regular season to push them into the second wildcard spot. Here's why I expect the Avalanche to handle the Predators with relative ease.

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Colorado Avalanche vs. Nashville Predators Series Preview

Despite their recent struggles, Colorado finished the season with 119 points, clinching home-ice advantage through the first three rounds of the playoffs. The Avs have failed to advance past the second-round in each of their last 10 playoff berths, and questions are starting to circulate as to whether or not this core is built for a deeper run. These playoffs will go a long way in answering them.

Luckily for the Avalanche, they have drawn perhaps the weakest of the 16 playoff teams. The Predators are in equally poor form, having lost five of their last seven games (including the monumental collapse in Arizona). Nashville ended the regular season with a 45-30-7 record, giving them 97 points—the fewest of any playoff team.

A Devastating Injury

Throughout the season, the Predators have been an average team at even-strength, and their special teams play hasn't been much better. So, one might ask, how are they in the playoffs at all? Roman Josi has had an outstanding season, but the team's MVP has been Juuse Saros, and it isn't particularly close. Saros has saved 20.7 goals above expected, a tally that ranks sixth among NHL starters. He has also faced the second-highest number of expected goals against, demonstrating the difficult workload that he has been forced to shoulder. Without Saros, the Predators would not be sniffing a playoff spot this season.

Unfortunately for Nashville, Saros is likely to miss the first-round due to a lower-body injury that he suffered against the Flames last Tuesday. Assuming he is out, Nashville will turn to backup goaltender David Rittich, who has posted a .883 save percentage and -7.5 GSAx this season. That is a massive, massive drop-off in quality from Saros, and likely not one that Nashville will be able to overcome.

The impact of Saros's absence is compounded by the fact that Colorado has received excellent play in goal this season. Darcy Kuemper has had a career year, posting a .921 save percentage to go along with 21 GSAx, both of which rank fifth in the league. It is worth noting that Kuemper has struggled a fair bit down the stretch, so it remains to be seen whether or not he can regain his elite level of play from earlier in the season.

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Mismatch at Even-Strength

Colorado has, generally speaking, dominated their opponents at even-strength this season, while Nashville has...not. The Avalanche rank seventh with a 5v5 corsi share of 52.86%, and ninth with an expected goals share of 52.53%. This means that the Avs generate more offense than their opposition, both in terms of quality and quantity. The Predators rank 17th and 16th in terms of corsi share and expected goals share, respectively. As a result, I expect the Avalanche to control the flow of play in this series and generate high-quality chances while minimizing the ones they concede, which tends to be a winning formula.

These analytical advantages manifested themselves in Colorado's results. The Avalanche scored 235 even strength goals in the regular season, a mark that tied for fourth in the league. The Predators scored just 197, which ranked 16th. The Avs also allowed fewer goals at 5v5—179 vs. 186. Scoring more goals than you allow tends to be a good thing, so Colorado is set up nicely here.

A Perfect Storm on Special Teams

Colorado's power play is going to give Nashville fits. The Avalanche converted on 24% of their power plays this season, a rate that ranked seventh in the NHL. It's easy to see why—a top unit that features the likes of Nathan MacKinnon, Cale Makar, and Mikko Rantanen is difficult to stop.

Nashville's problem in this department is two-fold. The first issue is that their penalty kill has been lackluster all season, and hasn't improved of late. Indeed, the unit has allowed six power play goals in the Predators' last five games. This weakness is especially relevant because of the second issue—Nashville takes a ton of penalties. In fact, they took the most penalties in the league this season with 392, 34 more(!) than the second-highest count.

For the Predators, this matchup, from a stylistic perspective, bodes poorly for any attempt at minimizing the number of penalties they take. Colorado excels at playing a run-and-gun, possession-based style in which they wear down the opponent by controlling the puck for long stretches, often exclusively in the offensive zone. That can lead to tired legs on the defensive side, which can then lead to—you guessed it—penalties. In other words, it's entirely possible that the Predators will be pressured into taking penalties at an even higher rate than their current (league-leading) one. That's unideal, to say the least, given Colorado's strength on the power play.

Final Thoughts

There's no doubt in anyone's mind that the Avalanche are the better team in this series. From a betting perspective, it's a matter of degree. Colorado would have already been favored by a fair amount if Saros was healthy. Have the new betting lines sufficiently captured the effect that his absence will have on the series? I doubt it. As far as upsets go, this one would probably be the most shocking if it came to fruition. I like the value on the Avs to cover a -2.5 line in this series, meaning they must win in four or five games for the bet to cash.

Colorado Avalanche vs Nashville Predators Pick

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Jason Yamaguchi is an avid New York sports fan. He has a proven record of providing +EV bets by combining traditional handicapping tactics with advanced statistics. You can follow him on Twitter @TopMoneyPicks to view all of his bets, including NFL, NHL, and MLB picks.

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