NASHVILLE — During the regular season, the Nashville Predators had the 15th-best goals-against average (2.68) and the 15th-best penalty killing (80.9) in the NHL.
Which is to say, they were a mediocre defensive team.
And given the past seven Stanley Cup champs have ranked no worse than sixth in regular-season GAA, and that penalty killing is always important in the playoffs, it was fair to wonder if the Preds had what it took to be a successful postseason team.
Well, the Preds are in the Stanley Cup Final now, and their defensive play is a big reason why. In 19 playoff games, their GAA is a measly 2.09, while their penalty killing is running at 89.1 percent. In Games 1 and 2 in Pittsburgh, they had some breakdowns in front of Pekka Rinne that cost them. But they bounced back Saturday in a 5-1 pasting of the Pens.
Read more: The Penguins’ power play has hit the skids
“As much as we sit here and talk about attack all the time … you have to play good defense,” said Preds coach Peter Laviolette. “We went through times in the season that we had to have meetings that peeled back the layers of what we’re doing on the ice. If we don’t play good defense, we won’t be successful.”
Occasionally, Nashville will fall back into a 1-3-1 structure through the neutral zone, similar to how the Ottawa Senators were positioned under coach Guy Boucher.
The Penguins know all about that, of course.
“I don’t think they’re committed to it as much as Ottawa was, when it felt like every time we were coming through the neutral zone that’s what we were looking at,” said captain Sidney Crosby. “With Nashville, they kinda pick their spots to fall back into that. But it helps playing a team previously that looked to do that, just knowing what to expect.”
One way to attack the 1-3-1 is to gain the center line, shoot the puck in, and go get it. The problem with doing that against the Predators? Firstly, Rinne is an excellent puck-handler. Secondly, Nashville’s defense is extremely mobile.
“With them, they just skate themselves out of trouble,” said Crosby. “They don’t have to spend a lot of time in their end. So the times you do get the puck, you need to get possession, challenge them, and force them to play defense.”
The Penguins also need to get their power play back on track. At practice this morning, that’s what they worked on the most.
“We practiced some concepts that we’ve been working on all season,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “It’s not anything that’s new to them. But obviously we haven’t had the success in this particular series, but we believe that these guys are capable. We’re just trying to reinforce some strategies.”
Game 4 goes Monday at Bridgestone Arena. The Penguins lead the series, 2-1.