Mattias Ekholm

‘Nothing’s going to be easy’ for the Preds, especially after the loss of Ryan Johansen

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The oddsmakers didn’t give the Nashville Predators much of a chance when the Stanley Cup playoffs began last month.

The Predators were considered one of the long shots to win it all, at 25/1, according to Bovada. No big surprise, given they were the second wild card team in the West and facing the No. 1 seed Chicago Blackhawks — also the favorites to win the championship when the playoffs began — in the opening round.

Since then, the Predators have swept the Blackhawks and advanced past the St. Louis Blues to make the Western Conference Final for the first time in franchise history.

They have played relentless hockey, backed for the most part by great goaltending from Pekka Rinne, an elite and productive group of defensemen, particularly Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, P.K. Subban and Mattias Ekholm, and a top line of Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson. Those seven players have combined for 71 points, which accounts for a substantial majority of Nashville’s offensive production.

On Thursday, the Predators fell one goal short of putting the Anaheim Ducks on the brink of elimination and moving within one win of the Stanley Cup Final. On Friday, the series shifted back to Anaheim tied at 2-2. On the surface, that’s not a bad position for the Predators to find themselves in.

However, Nashville’s Stanley Cup hopes were dealt a massive blow, with news that Johansen underwent emergency thigh surgery and is now done for the playoffs. Just like that, the Predators’ top center and playoff points leader removed from the lineup. Making matters worse is the fact captain Mike Fisher, who still doesn’t have a point in these playoffs, was also hurt Thursday. There was no update on his status the following day.

The Predators were already facing depth issues at center with Johansen out. If Fisher can’t play Saturday, it only adds to the current problem. It’s been widely suggested that if Johansen AND Fisher are both out, Calle Jarnkrok could be put into the No. 1 center spot.

Jarnkrok had a decent regular season with 15 goals and 31 points in 81 games. But he has only two points in 13 games during these playoffs and only five points in 33 career post-season games. His production has been a far cry from that of Johansen, who leads the team with 2.68 points per 60 minutes in these playoffs and a player for which most of the offense funnels through.

Others will need to step up. James Neal has five goals and seven points, but more will likely be asked of him with Johansen out. Colin Wilson has in the past emerged as an offensive threat — at least during the playoffs, anyway — but so far has only three points in 10 games this year.

If their offensive attack is limited without Johansen, it may put the spotlight back on the play of Rinne, their goalie. His play was sensational, bordering on out-of-this-world versus the Blackhawks. He posted a save percentage of .976 in that opening-round sweep, and it would be unrealistic to demand he sustain that for an entire playoff run.

He has still played well at times in this series, but the Ducks have also been able to find success. Rinne’s save percentage in four games sits at .911. The Predators may need him to be as close to perfect as possible the rest of the way.

Injuries occur to every team during the playoffs. Look no further than the Pittsburgh Penguins, still alive in the East, as a perfect example. They haven’t had their top defenseman — and one of the best in the league — in Kris Letang for the entire playoff, and have also dealt with a plethora of injuries, including to Sidney Crosby for one game, as this spring has continued.

“Nothing’s going to be easy,” Neal told reporters on Friday. “That’s why it’s the hardest trophy to win in sports.”

A few hours later, the hockey world learned the Predators would have to try to complete this already daunting task without their top center.

Ducks plan to stop Preds from ‘taking runs’ at Gibson

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Through three games of the Western Conference final, John Gibson has seen a lot of the Nashville Predators.

A lot.

The Preds have clearly prioritized making Gibson’s life difficult — driving to the net, taking away his eyes, etc. etc. — and it all came to a head in the third period of Game 3 when, within seconds of each other, Harry Zolnierczyk and Mattias Ekholm were both whistled for goalie interference, wiping out goals in the process.

Ahead of Game 4, the guys in front of Gibson talked about how to stop the Preds from crashing the crease.

“If we start stopping them a little bit earlier before they get to the net, they run out of speed before they get to him.,” blueliner Josh Mason said, per the O.C. Register. “It’s pretty simple what you got to do when guys start taking runs at a goalie like that.”

Under different circumstances — say, the regular season — the “pretty simple” solution would be for the Ducks to dole out some post-whistle justice, or seek retribution at a later time. But it’s the playoffs. Power plays are just too vital. Nashville’s winning tally in Game 3 came with the man advantage, and Anaheim has scored PPGs in consecutive games.

The bottom line is that neither team wants to take a penalty. It’s something Manson alluded to in explaining what he and the Ducks can do to keep the flies off Gibson — and, what they can’t.

“Any time you hit the goalie, it’s crossing the line,” he explained. “Any time you drive to the crease and you don’t really have any objections to stopping and running into him, that’s crossing the line.

“And I think if it wasn’t playoffs and you’re not worried about taking an extra penalty, I think there’d be a little more consequence to pay.”

There’s another option to consider: Do to Pekka Rinne what Nashville has done to Gibson.

That’s going to be something worth monitoring tonight. The Ducks have been vocal about not challenging Rinne enough, and Carlyle essentially challenged his group to be more aggressive yesterday.

“We have to get to the front of the net a lot harder,” he said. “[Rinne] got to see too many pucks.”

Predators’ elite defense dominated Ducks in Game 3

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Going into the 2016-17 season, the Nashville Predators were a chic choice for the Stanley Cup because of their deep, talented defense. That advantage has manifested itself the most during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, especially so in their 2-1 Game 3 win against the Anaheim Ducks.

Really, it only makes sense that Roman Josi scored the game-winner.

As strong as some of the Predators forwards are – particularly the top line of Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson – and as great as Pekka Rinne‘s been at times, the Preds’ defense has made a remarkably deep Ducks blueline look quite normal at times during the Western Conference Final.

Some of the stats are absolutely eye-popping, whether you judge them by Game 3:

Or if you zoom out and consider the entire postseason:

The key is that Peter Laviolette can deploy two extremely strong pairings where most teams are lucky to boast one.

Josi scored the game-winner and P.K. Subban has stolen a game or two already for Nashville, but Ryan Ellis has been outstanding (including a ridiculous nine shots on goal and an assist in Game 3) and Mattias Ekholm remains one of the NHL’s hidden gems.

Even the bottom pairing of Yannick Weber and Matt Irwin has its moments.

There will be times when the Predators defense looks mortal. It’s possible that an also-quite-strong Ducks group may grab the advantage at times in this series.

Still, there are moments when you just have to step back and shake your head at what Nashville’s managed to accomplish. It’s the sort of thing that inspires GM of the Year nominations.

Another reason for Predators’ playoff success? A red hot penalty kill

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The Nashville Predators have broken new ground in franchise history. In their first ever Western Conference Final, Nashville has a 1-0 series lead over the Anaheim Ducks.

There have been a few different reasons for Nashville’s success this post-season. You know all about these two:

— The goaltending they have received from Pekka Rinne has been dynamite. He made 27 saves in Friday’s series opener and now carries a save percentage of .950. No big deal.

— Talk of the production from the blue line — most notably Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi and P.K. Subban — has been constant since the first couple of games against the St. Louis Blues in the second round, and the trend continued versus the Ducks.

What may not be getting enough credit in this playoff run so far is the play of Nashville’s penalty kill.

Read more: Neal believes Predators can ‘play any type of game’

During the regular season, the Predators were 15th in the league short handed. Yeah, nothing to write home about. It’s been a totally different story in the playoffs.

“Well, I think Pekka’s the biggest reason, goaltenders are always your best penalty killer and he’s done a great job,” said Josi of Nashville’s penalty killing success.

Since the beginning of the second round — a span now of seven games — the Predators have given up just one power play goal against in 19 opportunities. On Friday, they successfully killed off four Anaheim power plays and allowed only four shots when short handed.

Of the remaining teams in the playoffs, Nashville’s penalty kill is the best, almost two percentage points better than Ottawa. As noted earlier, their top defenders have received plenty of accolades for their production, and rightfully so, but they’ve all been key members of this thriving penalty kill.

Josi leads the team in short-handed ice time and Ellis is right behind him. On Friday, those two, as well as Subban and Mattias Ekholm were all relied upon heavily in that situation. (As was captain Mike Fisher, who doesn’t have a point in the playoffs but remains Peter Laviolette’s top penalty killing forward.)

Again, not only were the Ducks shut out on the score board while on the power play, they didn’t generate many shots on Rinne.

“When you’re in the Final Four … every team’s got a pretty good power play and got players that can break open a game, so you’re not always going to be able to shut them down,” said Subban.

“But you can just try to take away their time and space, and try to disrupt and deter as much as you can.”

In the playoffs, special teams can determine the difference between winning and losing a game or a series. The penalty kill is just another reason why the Predators have continued their winning ways this spring.

Meanwhile, the Ducks power play continues to endure its own struggles. They have just two power play goals in 27 opportunities in their last eight games.

“Our power play has been a little bit touch and go. We have had a lot of looks that we liked but we’re just not getting them in the net,” said Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf.

Predators take Game 1 from Ducks in overtime

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In their first-ever game in a Western Conference Final, the Nashville Predators managed a gritty, impressive 3-2 overtime victory against the Anaheim Ducks on Friday.

James Neal seemed like he might have been injured during the third period, but luckily for the Predators, he came back soon after leaving the ice.

In overtime, he took advantage of a bright fake-and-pass by P.K. Subban to score the overtime-clincher.

It makes sense that Subban and Mattias Ekholm were involved in the game-winner, as Nashville’s defense factored into key parts of Game 1. Ryan Ellis fired seven shots on goal, Ekholm and Roman Josi fired four apiece and every blueliner on that team got at least one on net.

The Predators made it a busy night for John Gibson, generating a 46-29 shot differential in this one. This was a physical contest, too, with the two teams combining for 55 hits.

Ultimately, the Predators were too much for the Ducks on Friday. Attribute that to Nashville’s strengths or Anaheim’s fatigue, but either way, it was an impressive showing for a West wild card team that hasn’t looked out of place with favorites during these playoffs.

Nashville gets a chance to bolster a 1-0 lead into a 2-0 advantage in Game 2 in Anaheim on Sunday. That contest airs at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch online and via the NBC Sports App; click here for the livestream link.