Getty

Predators haven’t found answer for Jets’ quick-strike offense

1 Comment

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 phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Rinne, Predators rebound to tie series vs. Jets

5 Comments

Pekka Rinne and the Nashville Predators needed this one.

Game 4 wasn’t technically a must-win game for the Predators, but few teams are equipped to fight back from a 3-1 series deficit against the imposing Winnipeg Jets. Nashville avoided such a predicament by holding on to tie the series 2-2 instead thanks to a 2-1 win on Thursday.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Patrik Laine finally broke a goal-scoring drought to keep Rinne from technically having a perfect night, yet the Vezina finalist was splendid nonetheless. Rinne stopped every shot he faced at even strength (29 out of 29), only allowing that Laine power-play marker with 51 seconds remaining in the third period. Rinne had turned aside some golden opportunities, including moving laterally well enough to stop a high-quality Mark Scheifele opportunity – before Laine made things interesting. Ultimately, Rinne made 32 out of 33 saves.

His most memorable one came when he somehow succeeded in desperately stopping a first-period chance with his stick. That was good enough to earn its own post.

One cannot help but wonder if Laine would have even scored if P.K. Subban was on the ice. Subban took a penalty late in the third to open up the chance for that power-play goal, which must have been agonizing for the elite defenseman.

Subban was splendid for much of the contest beyond that slip-up, putting up nice possession numbers in demanding situations, and scoring what would stand as the game-winning goal with a howitzer on the power play. This extends Subban’s goal streak to three games (and he pitched in an assist during that hot streak).

While it’s always easier on the nerves to cruise to victory, there were a lot of heartening signs for the Predators in tying this series at 2-2.

  • Again, Rinne was fantastic in this game.
  • While the last minute caused some serious nail-biting for Predators fans, the team did manage to protect a lead this time around. They did so by mostly slowing the Jets’ high-powered offense down, at least about as much as any team reasonably can. It wasn’t just about Rinne, even though he was brilliant.
  • Despite rambunctious players like Scott Hartnell and Ryan Hartman being in the lineup (and Kevin Fiala being a curious omission), the Predators learned from Game 3 and maintained sound discipline. Both teams scored on the power play in Game 4, but each squad only received two power-play opportunities. Maybe that comes down to officials choosing to “let them play” or other factors, yet on paper, that seems like a very promising development.
  • Hartman also added a goal, so Nashville continues to receive production from supporting cast members.

Through four contests, this second-round showdown is more or less what we expected. The two teams have flexed their muscles at times, and we’ve also seen some back-and-forth thrillers, nasty moments, and a double-overtime treat.

Now this series boils down to a best-of-three, continuing a theme of the second round (if the Bruins win Game 4 of their series, all four series will at some point be tied 2-2).

With each team getting one road and one home win so far, it’s unclear if this will matter, but the Predators would get two of the three contests in Nashville if the series goes the distance of seven games. For all we know, this matchup of two juggernauts could come down to smaller advantages, especially if the key figures are all peaking at the right time.

Few things seem to come easily for the Jets and Predators, which could make things for even more fun as the stakes rise.

Game 5 takes place on NBCSN at 9:30 p.m. ET on Saturday.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Bruins’ Donato, Predators’ Tolvanen begin playoffs as scratches

Getty
6 Comments

Hype won’t always protect you from being a healthy scratch.

When it comes to some prominent late-season additions to potential Stanley Cup contenders, a spot in the lineup isn’t guaranteed. That’s something Ryan Donato is experiencing with the Boston Bruins, and the same can be said of prized Nashville Predators prospect Eeli Tolvanen. While NHL coaches are prone to throwing fastballs, it sure looks like those two young scorers will sit out Game 1 for their respective teams.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Donato the bigger surprise?

NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty reports that Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy confirmed that Donato won’t be in the lineup, with Brian Gionta and Nick Holden also being out.

Donato probably has more reason to be irritated by the snub than Tolvanen. For one thing, Donato’s a little older at 22 (Tolvanen is just 18, he’s turning 19 on April 22). Donato’s already shown serious potential by scoring nine points in 12 games despite sometimes-limited ice time.

Also, Riley Nash is unable to play against the Toronto Maple Leafs tonight, so one might argue that the Bruins could find a spot for Donato. Take a look at the B’s projected bottom two lines, via Haggerty:

Danton Heinen / Noel Acciari / David Backes
Tim Schaller / Sean Kuraly / Tommy Wingels

Overall, the Bruins deserve a lot of credit for diving in feet-first with young players. They didn’t hesitate to put Charlie McAvoy in a prominent role right off the bat during last season’s playoffs, and guys like Heinen have been given opportunities to prove themselves.

Maybe this is a bit of a correction in that area, especially since the Bruins will face a team that can really exploit mistakes in the high-powered Maple Leafs. (Of course, the natural counterpoint is that you’d want more firepower on the ice to out-gun Toronto, in which case Donato would make a ton of sense).

For what it’s worth, Donato seemed to take a healthy attitude toward a healthy scratch, according to what he told Rich Thompson of the Boston Herald.

“I’m just going to keep working hard, and whenever they need me and my number is called, I’ll be ready to go,” Donato said. “I don’t really take it as an insult. I’ll just take it that the team has been good all year.”

Tolvanen a work in progress

While Donato’s been scoring at an impressive rate, things haven’t “clicked” yet for Tolvanen in the NHL.

The young Finn failed to score a goal or an assist through three regular-season games before getting scratched during the final two contests. Tolvanen’s only logged 36:20 of ice time so far at this level, generating his three shots on goal in his third game. In his first two contests, he didn’t even get a puck on net. To little surprise, his possession stats have been putrid over that tiny sample.

Tolvanen has only been with the Predators since late March, and this Nashville team was loaded without him. Consider that Scott Hartnell and a Calle Jarnkrok joined Tolvanen as potential scratches for Game 1 (though it’s worth noting that it seems like Jarnkrok is a little banged-up). Do note that, while Donato’s confirmed to be out, there’s an outside chance Tolvanen does play. It just seems improbable.

[Morning Skate: how will Predators deal with Nathan MacKinnon?]

In an ideal world, Tolvanen would have been able to gain more traction before the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs began, but considering the fact that they lost Ryan Johansen and Kevin Fiala during last year’s run, Nashville can attest that injuries could open the door for the 30th pick of the 2017 NHL Draft.

“You don’t know what’s going to happen in the playoffs,” Peter Laviolette said, according to the Tennessean’s Adam Vignan. “If anything, last year proves that more than ever. … We’re probably going to need everybody.”

***

These aren’t the easiest calls regarding Donato and Tolvanen. These aren’t just rookies vying for time; these are players who haven’t been with the Bruins and Predators for very long.

Still, the fears of them making mistakes against attacking opponents like the Maple Leafs and Colorado Avalanche could be countered by the perks of getting more talent on the ice. Ultimately, their coaches will probably end up deploying them, especially if each squad enjoys deep playoff runs.

Thursday’s schedule

Lightning vs. Devils, 7 p.m. ET – NHL Network
Bruins vs. Maple Leafs, 7 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Capitals vs. Blue Jackets, 7:30 p.m. ET – USA
Predators vs. Avalanche, 9:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Ducks vs. Sharks, 10:30 p.m. ET – USA

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Predators vs. Avalanche: PHT 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

NBC Sports
6 Comments

The Nashville Predators’ record speaks for itself — they simply have everything in place to win a Stanley Cup.

They led the league with 117 points, garnering them the Presidents’ Trophy, and had the least number of regulation losses and the best away record in the NHL. They were simply dominant during the regular season and deserve the title as Stanley Cup favorites just hours before the first puck drops to start the 2017-18 postseason.

Nashville enters the playoffs with a 53-18-11 record. They were third in the NHL in terms of goal differential at +56.

While the Preds clinched weeks ago, the Avalanche needed to do so in their last game of the regular season — a thrilling 4-1 in a win-and-in against the St. Louis Blues (which featured a very close call on an offside review that ultimately stood as a goal).

Colorado finished the season with 43-30-9, good for 95 points – lowest among the 16 teams that made the dance.

In four games between both clubs, Nashville showed their might with a 4-0-0 record (three regulation wins and one win in overtime), while managing 17 goals for and just eight against.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Nashville shouldn’t have any issues in this series. They’re healthy, have the likely Vezina winner between the pipes, two candidates for the Norris on the blue line and a forward contingent that only got more dangerous as the season wore on with the additions of Kyle Turris (via trade), Mike Fisher (who came out of retirement) and Eeli Tolvanen (who Nashville signed after this KHL postseason ended last month).

The Avalanche, despite closing out the season 2-4-1 in their last seven games, still found a way to get two points when they needed to. Sure, they’ll be riding that high and will have the benefit of having to have played several playoff-style games down the stretch, but it’s a tough ask for a team to go toe-to-toe with the best team in the NHL without their starting goalie Semyon Varlamov and top-pairing defenseman Erik Johnson, both lost for the season due to separate injuries.

SCHEDULE

FORWARDS

Nashville: The Preds have the luxury of icing four lines that can put up points. It’s not just Filip Forsberg (26 goals, 64 points) and Viktor Arvidsson (29 goals and 61 points), the team’s top two scoring leaders. Kevin Fiala and Craig Smith finished up with 20-plus goal seasons and Scott Hartnell and Nick Bonino had 10-plus. In 5-on-5 situations, the Predators sit ninth in shot share at 51.5 percent and second in goals-for percentage at  56.7 percent. Hint: that’s good.

Colorado: Colorado’s top line of Nathan MacKinnon (39 goals, 97 points), Mikko Rantanen (29 goals, 84 points) and Gabriel Landeskog (25 goals, 62 points) combined for 36 percent of the team’s goal production this season. They were simply a force and a big reason why MacKinnon is a Hart Trophy candidate and the Avalanche are in the playoffs. That line absolutely has to produce to win, but the Avalanche need their other three lines to contribute. The analytics suggest the Avs struggle in 5-on-5 situations sitting in 27th in shot share with 47.6 percent. Even with their stacked top line, their goals-for percentage sits 15th at 52.1 percent.

Advantage: Predators. If it was top line vs. top line, Colorado would have the edge. But all four Predators lines can score, and do.

DEFENSE

Avalanche: Losing Erik Johnson for the playoffs is a massive blow, let that be known. Sure, Tyson Barrie plays a pivotal role on the backend in all three phases of the game, but Johnson isn’t a guy you can replace and his presence — 25:26 TOI per night — will be missed. Some of that extra ice time will fall to Samuel Girard. The rookie defenseman has been impressive this season and anchors the second-unit power play.

Predators: Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis are a formidable duo, and then teams have to deal with P.K. Subban and Matthias Ekholm. Nashville’s defense is as stout as there is in the NHL. They can also produce: Subban had 16 goals and 59 points this season and finished in the top-10 in d-man scoring. Josi, meanwhile, was no slouch either with his 14 goals and 53 points, putting him in the top-15.

Advantage: Predators. Only the Los Angeles Kings (202) allowed fewer goals than the Predators (204).

GOALTENDING

Avalanche: This matchup would be closer with Varlamov in net, but injuries derailed that late in the season. Bernier isn’t a bad goalie by any means, but asking him to carry the Avalanche in the same way the man 200 down ice from him can is nigh impossible. Bernier’s .913 save percentage won’t move the needle, but his 19-13-3 record helped propel this team to the playoffs, and when Varlamov missed time earlier this season, Bernier won nine straight amid a mid-season 10-game winning streak for the Avs that took them from the depths of the Central Division into a playoff fight they eventually won.

Predators: Pekka Rinne. Need we say more? He’s likely the frontrunner for the Vezina Trophy this season with 42 wins, a .927 save percentage and eight shutouts. He also has one the best — if not the best — defenses playing in front of him. Rinne is one of the league’s elite.

Advantage: This one isn’t close unless Bernier goes on a heater. It’s the team with the likely Vezina winner. It’s Nashville. Both teams give up a lot of shots (both are in the lower third in the league). Advantage to the team with the guy better at stopping them.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Predators: The Preds loved trips to the penalty box – they were the most penalized team in the NHL this season, putting themselves shorthanded a whopping 299 times, 18 more than any other team. What helped them was a solid penalty kill, ranking sixth in the league at 81.9 percent. That will be crucial going forward — the penalty kill bit — but some discipline would be a welcomed addition to an already-formidable team. On the power play, the Preds finished with a respectable 21.2 percent conversion rate with the man-advantage. Subban led with way with 25 power play points while Forsberg kicked in 21 of his own.

Avalanche: The Avs were a whole seven-tenths of a percentage point better than the Predators on the power play at 21.9 percent, scoring 65 times this season. When you’re top unit consists of the same guys who play on your top line, it’s a pretty safe bet that production will happen. Rantanen led the Avs with 35 power-play points, with MacKinnon a close second with 32. Tyson Barrie, manning the point with MacKinnon, pitched in 30. The second unit got 17 points for Alexander Kerfoot and 12 from Samuel Girard. On the penalty kill, Colorado finished fourth in the league at 83.3 percent despite finishing with the ninth most number of times shorthanded.

Advantage: The numbers don’t lie — gotta give this one to the Avalanche, although it’s very close.

X-FACTORS

Avalanche: Jonathan Bernier. With Varlamov done for the season with a lower-body injury, Bernier will be looked to for stellar goaltending against one of the top goal-scoring teams in the NHL this season. Bernier put up pedestrian numbers this season backing up Varlamov but owns a career 9-4-0 record with a .917 save percentage against the Predators.

Predators: The Avs own a good power play and the Predators like to take a lot of penalties. It’s not a winning concoction if you’re the Predators, even if your penalty kill is above average. In games that will be tight from pillar to post, toning down the number of trips to the sin bin could give the Predators another advantage in the series.

PREDICTION

Nashville in four games. Nashville dominated the season series, sweeping the Avalanche. The Predators have only gotten stronger while the Avs are dealing with key injuries. This should go quick.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Predators top Capitals, win first ever Presidents’ Trophy

9 Comments

After reaching the Stanley Cup Final a year ago the Nashville Predators have come back in 2017-18 and will finish the regular season as the NHL’s top team.

The Predators officially clinched their first ever Presidents’ Trophy on Thursday night thanks to their 5-4 win over the Washington Capitals and the Boston Bruins’ loss to the Florida Panthers.

That also means the Predators will be the top seed in the Western Conference and will have home-ice advantage throughout the entire playoffs.

The Predators were able to win on Thursday night thanks to a Ryan Johansen goal with just under six minutes remaining in the third period. They needed a third-period rally after Jusse Saros gave up a tough goal to Evgeny Kuznetsov early in the period to give the Capitals a 3-2 lead. But a Roman Josi power play goal at the 8:19 mark of the period brought things even again, setting the stage for Johansen’s goal to secure the win.

Craig Smith also scored a pair of goals in the win for the Predators.

Obviously the Presidents’ Trophy isn’t the trophy teams are playing for, but anytime you can bring home hardware of any kind it is a big moment for a team, and there is an awful lot to be said for being the best team in the league at the end of the regular season.

Looking at the Predators on paper and on the ice and it is difficult to find a weakness anywhere on the roster. Center depth was a big problem for them in the Stanley Cup Final a year ago when Johansen and Mike Fisher were injured. The Predators addressed that by signing Nick Bonino in free agency, trading for Kyle Turris, then bringing Fisher back out of retirement. They added to the rest of their forward depth by signing Scott Hartnell in free agency, trading for Ryan Hartman, and then bringing Eeli Tolvanen over from the KHL a couple of weeks ago.

They still have the best defense in the NHL and their goalie, Pekka Rinne, might be the front-runner for the Vezina Trophy thanks to what has been a career year in the crease.

They are almost certainly going to enter the playoffs as the  favorites to win the Stanley Cup.

The NHL has been giving out the Presidents’ Trophy since the 1985-86 season. The winner has gone on to win the Stanley Cup eight times. Three other times the winner has at least reached the Stanley Cup Final. The last team to win both in the same season was the 2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks. Before them you have to go back to the 2007-08 Detroit Red Wings.

————

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.