After reaching the Stanley Cup Final a year ago the Nashville Predators went all in on adding to what was already a top-line championship contender. They signed Nick Bonino and Scott Hartnell in free agency, traded for Kyle Turris early in the year, and then added at the deadline by paying a steep price for Ryan Hartman from the Chicago Blackhawks and bringing Mike Fisher back out of retirement.
All of those additions to a team that already had Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson, Ryan Johansen and what is probably the best defense in the NHL made them a team that was not only the NHL’s best during the regular season, but one that was probably the favorite to reach — and potentially win — the Stanley Cup Final.
The latter point could still very well end up happening, but they enter Monday’s Game 6 (9:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, live stream) in Winnipeg facing a must-win situation, needing to win back-to-back games against a Jets team that has given them fits in their second-round series.
The big story for the Predators has been their inability to figure out a solution for the Jets’ offensive attack, having already allowed 22 goals in the first five games of the series. There is always that debate of what wins in the playoffs: Offense or defense, and so far in this series the team with the best offense has the upper hand.
[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]
The easy thing to do from a Predators perspective is point the finger sharply in the direction of starting goalie Pekka Rinne given his .898 save percentage for the postseason, a number that drops down to an even worse .886 in this series alone. Simply put, he has not been great.
Rinne was spectacular for the Predators through the first three rounds of their Stanley Cup Final run a season ago before getting lit up at the worst possible time against the Pittsburgh Penguins. He came back this season with a spectacular regular season performance that made him a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, but has again run into some issues against a high-scoring team with a dynamic offense that moves the puck well.
The Predators, however, are not pointing the finger at their goalie and ahead of Monday’s Game 6 were putting more of the responsibility on the team in front of him.
“They will get better as soon as we get better in front of him,” said head coach Peter Laviolette on Monday, when asked about Rinne’s numbers this postseason.
“If you can go back to last game and tell me which one you’re really faulting Pekka Rinne on, then I’ll be happy to sit down and watch it with you. You can go through an awful lot of them where the same things happened. When we’re good in front of him, he’s a great goaltender. I feel like the onus is on us as a team to make sure there we’re complete with our game, and again, because of the opponent, it has to be that way.”
One of the problems for the Predators in this series has been an inability to slow the Jets down once their offense gets rolling. One goal has been quickly followed by a second goal and then things completely start to unravel for the Predators.
“It starts as a group,” said Predators defenseman P.K. Subban. “We never ever look at our goaltender. When we’re allowing the goals we’re allowing, it’s as a group, it’s not one specific individual. It’s all of us. And it’s not like it’s happening over a full 60 minutes. It’s a matter of three or four minutes where these things are happening. For us, like I said, the focus has to be on a full 60 minutes. If we do that, we’re going to like the result at the end of the night.
The Predators have had a couple of stretches in this series where they have given up goals in bunches to completely change the direction of a game, and perhaps the series as a whole. In Game 1 they gave up two goals in an eight-minute stretch in the second period that proved to be the difference in a game the Predators absolutely dominated on the shot chart.
In Game 2 they gave up two goals in less than a minute, but were able to come back and win in double overtime.
In Game 3 they allowed what was a three-goal lead to evaporate when they allowed the Jets to score three goals in the first six minutes of the second period on their way to a come-from-behind blowout win.
In Game 5 it was four goals in 10 minutes, including three in a five-minute stretch in the first period.
The thing about all of this is that it is very similar to how the Predators ended up losing the Stanley Cup Final against the Penguins a year ago when they had similar short-term meltdowns in three of their four losses.
Two things can be true here: The Predators can absolutely clean things up in front of their goalie and not play a game that has structural breakdowns that give the Jets opportunities to get their offense rolling. If you have the best defense in the league, you can be better.
Rinne can also be better. Saying that is not the same as putting all of the blame on him, either. It is just a statement of fact. He can be better.
Given the way this matchup has gone — both through the regular season and the playoffs — it seems unlikely at this point that the Predators are going to find a way to completely shut down the Jets offense. They are going to get their chances, they are going to generate shots. This is what they do and what they have done all season against every team.
But it is not like the Predators have not been able to do the same. The shots on goal in the series are virtually identical (the Predators actually have a 188-179 edge), and it’s not like the Predators haven’t had their Grade A chances in what has at times been a back-and-forth, run-and-gun matchup. The biggest difference at the end of the day, though, is that Connor Hellebuyck in the Jets’ crease has been able to put a .925 save percentage on the board.
If the Predators are going to move on they are going to need Rinne to at least come close to matching his counterpart at the other end of the ice. If he doesn’t, they may not have a chance to win. That is not necessarily a slight on him as much as it is a testament to how good the Jets’ offense has been and currently is.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.