The NHL could not have planned this any better.
The Nashville Predators and Dallas Stars are due to meet in the next Winter Classic but first the two Central Division foes have a chance to build up their rivalry starting Wednesday night in the first postseason series between them.
“It’s probably really good promotion for NBC for next year to get this rivalry going,” Predators general manager David Poile said.
Nashville won the season series 3-2, and Stars forward Tyler Seguin said the games have been low-scoring battles.
“If there’s not a rivalry there, there’s going to be,” Seguin said. “And I’m sure NBC’s real excited with the gods putting us all in the hands of Winter Classic next year. I guess you can call it fate for us. It’s going to be a good series.”
The Stars missed the postseason the past two years before earning the Western Conference’s first wild card while the Predators are making their fifth straight appearance. Much of the roster remains from Nashville’s first Stanley Cup Final team. The Predators won their first Presidents’ Trophy a year ago only to lose in the second round to Winnipeg in seven games.
Now they have their second straight division title thanks to an 8-2-1 finish, and are hoping all that experience pays off in another trip to the finals.
“Absolutely the best time of the year,” Predators goalie Pekka Rinne said.
First-year Stars coach Jim Montgomery has an interesting decision to make in net between Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin.
Bishop, plagued by lower-body injuries that sidelined the Dallas starter several times during the regular season, led the NHL in save percentage (.934) and was second in goals-against average (1.98). But Khudobin set a franchise record for saves in a shutout with 49 in a 2-0 win at Nashville in December and stopped 38 of 39 shots there five weeks later. He wasn’t quite as good in the third game at Nashville, stopping 21 of 24 in a 3-2 overtime loss five days after that second win.
“I didn’t say it was going to be split,” Montgomery said when asked about the hot-hand approach. “I said I imagine both playing.”
REIGNING VEZINA WINNER
Rinne didn’t match the season he had a year ago in winning his first Vezina Trophy, but he just posted his fifth straight season with at least 30 wins to tie for the longest active streak in the NHL. Rinne went 3-0-0 last week with a 2.01 GAA and .935 save percentage. Backup Juuse Saros won both his starts against Dallas, giving Nashville a strong option if needed.
“Pekka has had a terrific season and certainly he’s played very strong down the stretch for us,” Nashville coach Peter Laviolette said.
While Jamie Benn and fellow high-priced forward Seguin bring plenty of experience (Seguin won the Stanley Cup as a 19-year-old with Boston in 2011), the Stars have some key playoff newcomers in 19-year-old standout Miro Heiskanen, fellow defenseman Esa Lindell and emerging forward Roope Hintz. Lindell is 24, Hintz 22. Montgomery isn’t concerned.
“I like our 19-year-old not having any Stanley Cup playoffs,” Montgomery said. “He’s going to be OK in the playoffs.”
The Stars could have a decided advantage over Nashville when it comes to the power play. Dallas ranked 11th converting 21% with the man advantage to go along with a penalty kill that’s fifth-stingiest. Nashville is just behind Dallas when it comes to killing penalties, but the Predators were last in the league on the power play at 12.9%. They scored only one power play in the season series with Dallas — when the Stars had pulled their goalie in the final minute of the teams’ first game.
Nashville traded for Brian Boyle, Wayne Simmonds and Mikael Granlund in February in part for their power-play prowess. Nashville’s game-winning goal that clinched the division title came on a power play.
Both Nashville and Dallas are among the league’s best on home ice with the Predators ninth-best at 25-14-2 and the Stars at 12th after going 24-14-3. Seguin said Nashville easily ranks among the top three home rinks, though he puts Vegas as the loudest in the regular season. Laviolette said he doesn’t have a crystal ball to see how home ice will treat teams.
“Given the choice to play at home or on the road, I’d rather play in front of our fans and play in our building,” Laviolette said.