NHL on NBCSN: Goaltending, special teams driving Predators’ early struggles

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Nashville Predators and Tampa Bay Lightning. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Neither the Nashville Predators or Tampa Bay Lightning are where they expected to be in the standings entering Tuesday’s game in Nashville.

Both are on the outside of the current NHL playoff picture, and both have regressed significantly from where they have been in recent seasons when they were among the top teams in the league.

The Lightning are still trying to shake off the disappointment of last year’s playoff failure and figuring out how they have to play, while also trying to find some consistency in their overall performance. The offense is starting to get back on track, and they have shown some signs in recent weeks that the team that won 62 regular season games a year ago is still lurking around and ready to show itself. They are not where they want to be yet, but they are getting closer.

The Predators are not without their issues, either.

Despite their slow start, the Predators have actually been one of the league’s best 5-on-5 teams and are near the top of the in pretty much every objective measure, including total shot attempts, scoring chances, and even goal differential where they own a plus-12 mark entering Tuesday. They are controlling games at even-strength, mostly dictating the pace of play, and playing like the contender they are supposed to be when all sides are equal.

Big picture, that is a great sign because you need that sort of 5-on-5 play to consistently win and compete for a championship.

[COVERAGE OF PREDATORS-LIGHTNING BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What is holding them back so far has been the performance of their goaltenders and their special teams units, and those two areas kind of overlap.

Goaltending and the penalty kill. The duo of Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros has been one of the league’s best over the past three years, but has not played anywhere near that level this season.

Both own sub-.900 save percentages entering Tuesday’s game, and their biggest struggles have come with the Predators shorthanded. Their performance in those situations is absolutely sinking the team’s penalty killing unit as it enters Tuesday’s game with a 75 percent success rate (26th in the league).

The Predators’ PK unit is near the top of the league in limiting shots and chances against, but the Rinne-Saros duo has managed only a pitiful .785 save percentage on the shots they have faced while shorthanded. No other team in the league has a save percentage lower than .811 in those situations, while the league average is around .864. You can have the best penalty killing unit in the league, blocking shots, limiting chances, and even scoring the occasional shorthanded goal, but if your goalie can not get you a save none of it will matter.

The power play still can’t score. The 2018-19 Predators had one of the worst power play units we have seen in recent NHL history. They were terrible in the regular season (scoring on just 12.9 of their power plays, worst in the league) and a complete embarrassment in the playoffs, going 0-for-the-series in their Round 1 loss to the Dallas Stars. It was a momentum killer, a game-wrecker, and a unit that brought down the team’s overall offensive performance.

Not much has changed this season.

While the unit has found the back of the net a little more regularly and shown some improvement, they still find themselves 26th in the league entering play on Tuesday. The injury to Viktor Arvidsson (maybe their best pure goal-scorer) is not going to help, but even with him it is a unit that could probably still use one more impact player and finisher up front. Matt Duchene has been a great addition, but they still don’t have a lot of great finishers that can drive that unit.

Tonight’s studio coverage will be hosted by Paul Burmeister alongside analysts Jeremy Roenick and Anson Carter. John Forslund and Pierre McGuire will call the action from Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn.

In addition, NASCAR champions Kyle Busch (2019) and Joey Logano (2018) are scheduled to make guest appearances during tonight’s NHL coverage as part of NBC Sports and NASCAR’s “Nashville Takeover” this week, highlighted by the NASCAR Awards from Nashville this Thursday night on NBCSN.

Busch will join pre-game coverage and Logano will join McGuire ‘Inside-the-Glass’ during the second period. Busch also made a guest appearance on last night’s WWE Raw event on USA Network.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

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