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Forsberg’s return just what Predators need

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Through the first month-and-a-half of the 2018-19 season the Nashville Predators were rolling along as one of the best teams in the NHL, just as they have over the previous two years.

Then the injuries started to pile up. And we’re not talking just any injuries. We’re talking significant injuries to the best players on the team, and all around the exact same time.

Between Nov. 1 and Dec. 27 Viktor Arvidsson played in just one game. P.K. Subban played in just six games during that stretch (and none after Nov. 13), while Filip Forsberg has been sidelined since the end of November.

Subban and Arvidsson have already returned to the lineup, and Forsberg will return Monday night against the Toronto Maple Leafs after missing time due to a hand injury.

It should be obvious as to why this is a big deal for the Predators.

For one, Forsberg is their best offensive player and one of the best in the league. He has been so good, in fact, that even though he has not played in over a month he is still tied for the team lead in goals with 14 (Craig Smith also has 14, but has played in all 43 games for the Predators … Forsberg has played in 26).

But not only that, his return will also reunite all three of the Predators’ top players for the first time in nearly two months.

It will be just the second time since the end of October — and the first time since Nov. 10 — that the Predators will have all of Forsberg, Arvidsson, and Subban in the lineup for the same game.

It will only be the 14th time all season.

These three players were, literally, their top-three scorers a season ago. Take any team’s top-three scorers away for more than a quarter of the season and it’s going to have a massively negative impact on their results, and the Predators have absolutely experienced that over the past two months.

Not only have they rarely been in the lineup together, but the Predators have played 11 games without any of them (with a 5-5-1 record) and 19 games (with a 9-9-1) record without at least two of them.

In the previous 13 games they’ve played with all three, the Predators are 10-3-0 and have averaged more than 3.6 goals per game. That is more in line with what we expect to see from this team.

The slump that coincided with the injuries has put the Predators in a tight fight with the Winnipeg Jets for the top spot in the Central Division. They’ve already started to break out of that slump with the returns of Arvidsson and Subban, and now they are on the verge of getting back their best goal-scorer as they try to keep pace with the Jets. And it’s a perfect time to start getting healthy, too, as the team is in the middle of a six-game road trip and a stretch of games where they have to face some tough, tough teams (including Toronto, Columbus, Washington, Winnipeg, Colorado and Vegas all over the next eight games).

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.

 

Predators have one big problem to solve

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Some NHL teams are closer to being perfect than others, but no group of players is without flaw. The Nashville Predators are off to a great start. They’re tied for the best record in the NHL at 13-5-1, but the Preds have a huge issue they’re going to have to address sooner or later.

When it comes to goals scored, they’re currently ninth in the NHL with 62. When it comes to goals against, the Predators (44 goals allowed) only trail Winnipeg by one for top spot. So, what’s the glaring weakness? It’s the power play, which currently ranks dead-last in the NHL at 10.8 percent. No other team is below 12.7 percent this season. Yikes!

The Predators are heading into this weekend’s game against the Los Angeles Kings on a three-game losing skid. They’ve dropped one-goal decisions to Anaheim (shootout), San Jose and Arizona. During that stretch, they’ve gone 0-for-15 on the man-advantage. You think a power-play goal here or there would have made a difference in three one-goal games? Definitely.

A perfect example of that came on Monday night in Anaheim. The Preds went 0-for-7 on the power play in that one, including a 4-on-3 man-advantage in overtime. Sometimes scheme is the issue, but other times it’s just about the opponent’s aggressive penalty kill, or their goalie. In overtime, it was all about Ducks goalie John Gibson, who stoned Ryan Johansen right in front of the net.

As TSN’s Travis Yost pointed out earlier this week, one of the major issues might be how much ice time their defensemen are getting on the man-advantage. Many teams have opted to use four forwards on the power play this season, but the Preds aren’t typically one of them. Because they’re loaded with defensemen like P.K. Subban (now injured), Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis, they feel like those players are the best options in that kind of scenario. Now that Subban’s been placed on injured reserve, they could decide to hand more ice time to their forwards.

Of the eight power-play goals they’ve scored this season, three have come off the stick of Filip Forsberg. No other player has more than one. And just one of the eight goals has been scored by a defenseman, and that’s Josi.

“I thought we started to get some looks in the overtime,” head coach Peter Laviolette said after Monday’s game against Anaheim, per The Tennessean. “We could’ve won the game a bunch of times on the power play and it just didn’t go for us, so that’s where we’re at right now with it. It’s gotta be better.”

The good news for Nashville, is that they’re going to be home for the majority of the remaining days in November and early December, which means they’ll have ample practice time to work on this significant issue. Eight of the Predators’ next nine games will be at Bridgestone Arena. The only road game they’ll play between now and Dec. 3 will be in St. Louis.

Imagine how dangerous the Preds will be if they get their power play sorted out? That’s a scary thought.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Second Round Preview: 10 things to know about Jets vs. Predators

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Let’s not kid ourselves here, if you’re a fan of the game of hockey, the second round matchup between the Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators is the crème de la crème.

This isn’t throwing any disrespect or shade on the three other series going on around the league. It’s just the truth.

This matchup was on the tongues of fans in both markets and across the league before the playoffs even began. People wanted it, and they knew if both teams took care of business in the first round, they’d get it.

Now it’s here. And it’s massive in every measurable way.

Simply put, you have the two best teams in the regular season facing off against one another.

Nashville finished with 117 points and the Presidents’ Trophy while the Jets slotted in three points back with 114. The hype begins there and runs rampant as each storyline branches out.

Both teams possess Vezina Trophy candidates this season.

Both teams have great offenses, stout defenses and excel in special teams.

And the hits just keep coming: Patrik Laine vs. Filip Forsberg. Mark Scheifele vs. P.K. Subban. Dustin Byfuglien vs. anyone brave enough.

Can Austin Watson and Colton Sissons keep it up? Will Nikolaj Ehlers find his scoring touch? What about Kyle Connor? Will injuries derail the Jets or will discipline issues spell doom for the Predators?

The list is endless and enthralling.

Schedule

Surging Players

Jets: On offense, Scheifele finished up the first round series with four goals and five points while Laine had two goals and two assists. Byfuglien had five assists as he chipped in from the point, but his biggest contribution outside of production was the hurt he put on the Minnesota Wild, physically.

But unquestionably, the Jet that is surging the most at the moment is Hellebuyck, who bounced back from a tough Game 3 outing to post back-to-back shutouts in Games 4 and 5 to close out Winnipeg’s first-round series against the Wild.

Predators: The first round was the Austin Watson coming out party. Watson had four goals and three assists to match linemate Colton Sissons’ three goals and four assists for the team lead at seven points. Add Nick Bonino‘s five points and the Predators third line made up three of the team’s top six scorers during their six-game series against Colorado.

Forsberg wasn’t far behind, scoring four and adding two helpers. Meanwhile, Mattias Ekholm had one goal and five assists.

Struggling players

Jets: Winnipeg works so well as a unit that even when there is a lull offensively from a player, they’re aren’t always immediately viewed as being stuck in rut.

That said, Nikolaj Ehlers, who scored 29 goals in the regular season and rookie Kyle Connor, who had 31 in his inaugural NHL campaign, have just two assists apiece thus far. This isn’t to say the sky is falling on those two, and you could probably chalk up their first-round offensive struggles to trying to sort playing in the playoffs in the big leagues.

Still, both will be looking for improvement in the goal-scoring department in the second round.

Predators: Ryan Hartman cost the Preds a first-round pick at the trade deadline on Feb. 26 and he was a healthy scratch for Game 6. Hartman already missed Game 5 due to suspension after throwing his own pity party and then trying to take Carl Soderberg‘s head clean off.

Hartman needs to be better, and so does the line of Kyle Turris, Craig Smith and Kevin Fiala.

Turris had no goals in the series, adding just two assists. Turris had 10 points in 19 games last year with the Ottawa Senators as they went on their run to the Eastern Conference Final. Fiala had a goal and an assist in the series and Smith had two markers. Turris’ line was solid during the regular season. That magic would be a welcomed addition to the second round.

Oh, and Mike Fisher could pitch in a goal or even a helper. He’s laid an egg through six games.

Goaltending

Jets: The backbone of the Jets, both in the regular season and through the first round.

Hellebuyck has been nothing short of sensational for the Jets this season. He posted a healthy 4-1 record with a .924 save percentage and two shutouts in the first round. Hellebuyck is able to string together solid start after solid start, and when he has an off night, like he did in Game 3, his ability to quickly forget it and move on is uncanny.

He’s a Vezina candidate for a reason and a problem the Predators must solve to move on.

Predators: Speaking of Vezina candidates, Rinne is likely the front-runner for the award this year, and his regular season was tremendous.

In the first round, however, Rinne looked fairly pedestrian, if not below average, with a .909 save percentage. Still, he backstopped the Predators to a 5-0 win in Game 5 with a 22-save shutout. And Nashville has all the ingredients in front of Rinne to make up for poor nights.

One area of concern for Rinne is his sub-.800 save percentage when facing high-danger scoring chances. It’s something to keep an eye on against a team that generates a lot of them.

This battle is paramount in the series. The Jets, even with their scoring prowess, have it all to do against Rinne if he’s on top of his game.

Special teams

Jets: Winnipeg’s penalty kill struggled in the first round, killing off infractions just 76.9 percent of the time. The Jets had the eighth best PK in the league during the regular season, so chalk this one up as an anomaly, but it’s certainly worth keeping an eye on.

The Jets were given just 13 power plays in the first round and converted on three of them for a healthy 23.1 percent success rate. Laine didn’t find the back of the net with the man-advantage as the Wild tried to take him out of the equation altogether. It didn’t help that they left Scheifele open twice, however. Winnipeg has a lot of weapons at their disposal on the PP. Nashville would do well to limit the number of times Winnipeg gets to deploy them.

Predators: The Preds were shorthanded 20 times during the first round but managed to kill off 90 percent of those. In theory, rinse and repeat should be on the menu, but the Jets are far more dangerous up a man than Colorado. Still, having Rinne in the crease and Subban, Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis to depend on in front of him is the envy of many.

Nashville’s power play was a bit of a bottom feeder during the first round, converting on just 15.8 percent of their 19 chances (three, for those who aren’t good at math, like me). That compares to their 21.2 percent during the regular season. If Winnipeg’s PK continues to struggle, Nashville could get back to that number.

Fancy stats

Jets: There’s not a better possession team in the playoffs thus far. The Jets are moving along with a 58.96 percent Corsi rating through five games, and showed their ability to dominate and hold teams in their defensive zone in some lopsided affairs against the Wild. Winnipeg’s expected goals-for percentage (xGF%) was highest at 61.9%.

Predators: The Jets might lead playoff teams in terms of possession, but right behind them is the Predators at 54.89%. The Predators had the edge between the two teams in medium-danger save percentage at .986 compared to Winnipeg’s .939. Nashvilles xGF% was third at 55.9%.

We’re splitting hairs here. Both teams are good in many analytical categories. According to TSN’s Travis Yost, “Winnipeg actually outchanced Nashville (53.5 per cent of scoring chances in their favor) over the five-game series, but Nashville did end up winning three of five games.”

Injuries

Jets: Laine missed Wednesday’s practice and Ehlers missed Game 5, both with “malaise” as Jets coach Paul Maurice preferred to put it. Maurice said he expects both to be ready for Game 1.

The Jets are without Mathieu Perreault, who has been out of action since picking up an injury in Game 1. Dmitry Kulikov (back) still remains sidelined. Backup netminder Steve Mason is nursing another lower-body injury but has been skating. Toby Enstrom, meanwhile, is finally back to practice after missing time with an ankle injury. His return could be a big boost for the Jets. Enstrom’s a solid puck-moving defender who is great at breakouts and works well beside Byfuglien.

Predators: The Preds emerged from the first round relatively unscathed. Watson missed team skates on Wednesday and Thursday but is expected to play. Otherwise, it appears all cylinders are firing for the Predators at the moment.

X-Factor for Jets

Some might say health, but the Jets have proved they can not only handle the injury bug, but spite it all together with impressive results. The Jets seem to click no matter who’s in the lineup. That said, they face a Predators team that can punish lesser players. But the x-factor here is goaltending. If Hellebuyck is on his game, the Jets are near-unstoppable.

X-Factor for Predators

Discipline. The Predators simply need to control their sticks and their extremities and take fewer minors. Nashville took 29 minor penalties (second most) in the first round and was shorthanded 20 times. They’re playing against the power play that clipped along at 23.1 percent in the first round and have Laine and Scheifele who can be devastating if given the opportunity with the man advantage. Nashville’s penalty kill was an even 90 percent against the Avalanche, but they can’t rest on that against Laine and Co.

Prediction

Predators in 7: I’m sticking to my pre-playoff pick, but it’s getting increasingly hard. The Jets were simply too good in the first round not to take notice and the Predators were largely pedestrian against the Avalanche to make this one a coin flip on paper.  The Predators gained a ton of experience last year, and they will have to lean on that in this series. The edge is razor thin, but the Predators are slightly ahead of the curve. I expect Nashville to tighten up defensively and not give Winnipeg’s stars the kind of space Nathan MacKinnon was afforded in the first round.

More:
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Second round schedule, TV info
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
10 things to know about Golden Knights vs. Sharks
• 10 things to know about Penguins vs. Capitals

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

The Buzzer: Penguins dominate, Sharks sweep

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Wednesday’s scores

Pittsburgh Penguins 5, Philadelphia Flyers 0 (Penguins lead 3-1):

Pittsburgh dominated from pillar to post in this one. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel each had three points nights. Matt Murray, meanwhile, grabbed his second shutout of the playoffs in the win, which puts the Flyers on the brink of a playoff exit. Philly has just six goals in four games now and five of those came in Game 2.

Tampa Bay Lightning 3, New Jersey Devils 1 (Lightning lead 3-1):

Nikita Kucherov was a force in this one, scoring the twice and adding an assist while laying a massive (and controversial) hit on Devils’ defenseman Sami Vatanen, which knocked the latter out of the game. J.T. Miller tied the game in the first period and assisted on both of Kucherov’s goals for a three-point night of his own. Andrei Vasilevskiy, up for the Vezina this year, turned aside 27-of-28 shots.

Nashville Predators 3, Colorado Avalanche 2 (Predators lead 3-1): 

The Predators held off a late comeback attempt by the Avalanche to take a 3-1 series lead back to Nashville. Colton Sissons and Craig Smith scored in the second period, following Filip Forsberg‘s highlight-reel first-period marker to give the Preds a 3-0 advantage going into the third. Gabriel Landeskog and Alexander Kerfoot brought the Avs back to within one, but that was as far as they’d get. The Avs lost more than just the game as goalie Jonathan Bernier left after the second period with a lower-body injury and did not return.

San Jose Sharks 2, Anaheim Ducks (Sharks win 4-0):

Tomas Hertl scored 1:16 after Andrew Cogliano tied the game 1-1 in the third period to give the Sharks their second sweep in franchise history (they previous swept the Vancouver Canucks in 2013). The Ducks looked better than their Game 3 effort (just showing up would likely do that), but still only managed a single goal (and just four in the series). Martin Jones made 30 saves for the win. The Sharks will face the Vegas Golden Knights in the second round after Vegas swept the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday.

Three stars

Matt Murray, Penguins: Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Sidney Crosby each had three-point nights, but Murray’s 26 saves made sure the Flyers came nowhere near the Penguins as he picked up his second shutout of the series, sixth playoff shutout of his career and fourth in his past six playoff games. Those are some ridiculous numbers from the Pens’ No. 1.

Nikita Kucherov, Lightning: Two goals — the game-winner and the dagger into the empty net to ensure victory — capped off a big night for Kucherov, who has scored in all four of the series’ games thus far. Kucherov added an assist on the game-tying goal in the first period and laid a massive hit on Sami Vatanen (which could earn him a call from the league).

Filip Forsberg, Predators: Got the Predators off on the right foot with his first-period marker which, as you will see below, was from another world. He also assisted on Colton Sisson’s tally that gave the Preds a 2-0 lead in the second period. Forsberg now has five points through four games in the series.

Highlights of the Night

Forsberg’s theatrics:

Jones was a huge problem for the Ducks, as seen here:

Man deposited into bench:

Vezinalevskiy:

Factoids of the Night

Thursday’s schedule

Boston Bruins at Toronto Maple Leafs, 7 p.m. ET (NBCSN) — Bruins lead series 2-1
Washington Capitals at Columbus Blue Jackets, 7:30 p.m. ET (USA, NBCSWA) — Blue Jackets let series 2-1


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

Filip Forsberg suspended three games

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The Nashville Predators will have to manage without one of their top forwards this week.

Filip Forsberg, who sits second on the team in points with 38, will miss three games after the NHL Player Safety Department suspended him for interference following a crushing hit on New York Rangers forward Jimmy Vesey on Saturday.

The incident occurred in the second period. As Vesey came around the net, he loses the puck. Forsberg, tracking him as he’s coming around, turns and collides with him. Vesey looked shaken up on the play.

In their ruling handed down on Sunday, the NHL’s PSD called the hit “high and forceful” and one that “makes substantial head contact.”

Forsberg, 23, has never been fined or suspended in the past, but player safety took into consideration Vesey’s injury resulting from the play, which included quite a bit of blood coming from his mouth.

The Predators begin a four-game eastern road trip on Monday in New York to face the Islanders. Forsberg will also miss a back-to-back against the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators on Wednesday and Thursday.

He will be eligible to return on Saturday against the Canadiens in Montreal.

Forsberg will forfeit $96,774.18, money which goes to the Players’ Emergency Assistance Fund.