The Predators’ defense has been the talk of the league and Pekka Rinne stole the show against the Blackhawks. But Nashville’s offensive depth shouldn’t be overlooked.
The Predators’ blueline receives a lot of well-deserved credit for Nashville’s success. In the first round, the smothering play of the defensive corps helped shut down a high-powered Blackhawks offense, allowing Chicago to score a mere three goals over the course of a four-game sweep. And while the defense hasn’t been quite as good at silencing St. Louis’ snipers — the Blues have seven goals in three games — the continued offensive production of the Predators’ blueline is convincing some that Nashville has what it takes to potentially challenge for the Stanley Cup.
It’s true that Nashville has assembled one of the most impressive defenses in the entire league. P.K. Subban has seemingly improved in his new home with each passing game, Ryan Ellis continues to impress with his ability to produce from the point, Mattias Ekholm is a steadying force in the top four and Roman Josi, who is already a star, would be more heralded as one of the league’s top defenders if he played in New York, Toronto, Montreal or one of the other major media markets. That he’s already reaching that category in Nashville, which doesn’t have the spotlight shone on it as often as some other franchises, speaks volumes about his game.
But lost in the talk about the Predators’ strength on the backend this post-season has been that Nashville GM David Poile has assembled a roster that is as capable of hurting opponents with each of its four lines up front. Because while scoring from the blueline is key to any quest for a championship, there are bound to be games where that dries up. When that’s the case, the forwards — from the top line to those who rarely see the ice — will be asked to contribute. For Nashville, those contributions have been consistent and maybe it can be what puts the Predators squarely in the title conversation as the post-season wears on.
The offensive catalysts for the Predators are obvious, of course, as the primary scoring runs through the line of Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson. The trio was incredibly productive once it came together this past season. In the regular season, the three skated more than 500 minutes together at 5-on-5, one of the few groupings of linemates to play together that often. The trio produced, too, netting 28 goals while skating five-a-side during the regular season. But the playoffs have seen Johansen, Forsberg and Arvidsson turn up the heat.
In the post-season, there are 18 three-player line combinations that have skated together for at least 50 5-on-5 minutes. That includes lines such as Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Bryan Rust, the grouping of Evgeny Kuznetsov, Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson and the Connor McDavid line, where he skates alongside Leon Draisaitl and Patrick Maroon. But the most productive three-headed monster in the playoffs thus far? The Predators’ top unit. No other three-man unit has produced a higher percentage of scoring chances for and there are only two lines who’ve had better possession numbers than the Johansen, Forsberg and Arvidsson. And in terms of pure scoring, the trio has put up seven goals — more than any other line — while surrendering only one 5-on-5 goal against.
But having a top line is only part of the equation, and what has really made a difference it the sheer depth of scoring the Predators have had up front. The second line of James Neal, Calle Jarnkrok and Kevin Fiala — who has since fallen injured and is out for the rest of the post-season — hasn’t made quit the impact of the Predators’ top unit, but there were times the group looked every bit as threatening. In Game 3 against the Blackhawks, Fiala in particular was buzzing, and it was no surprise when he netted the overtime winner. Neal kept things rolling when he found the net in Game 2 against the Blues, and Colin Wilson, who replaced Fiala in the top six, has even captured some of that “Playoff Willy” form that Poile has talked about in the past. Wilson has six shots and a goal in three games against the Blues after missing the entire first round with a lower-body injury.
As a whole, the bottom six has managed to produce, as well. That goes for Colton Sissons, especially. While he’s yet to light the lamp in the second round, Sissons has three assists in three games against the Blues and two goals and six points throughout this post-season. He’s only four points off of matching his total production from the regular season, during which he played 58 games. Something has seemed to click for Sissons and the Predators are reaping the rewards. He’s not the only minor-minute man stuffing the stat sheet, though.
In fact, through seven games, there’s only one lineup regular who has yet to register at least one point, and that’s veteran captain Mike Fisher. The only other forwards who haven’t found the score sheet are Miikka Salomaki, who has played two games and average 9:41, and P-A Parenteau, who has seen two games and similar fourth-line minutes. That’s resulted in the Predators having their fair share of heroes. Five different forwards have scored game-winning goals this post-season, ranging from Arvidsson and Fiala to Sissons and mid-season acquisitions Cody McLeod and Vernon Fiddler.
In both the Predators’ series so far, most have had faith that Nashville would win the defensive battle. That’s because there aren’t many teams who can go player-for-player on the backend with Nashville. Even goaltending has been called a relative wash. Pekka Rinne has had a stellar season and he’s been at least on-par on paper with his counterparts Corey Crawford and Jake Allen. But depth up front seemed to be the one area where maybe, if anywhere, the Predators would slip.
Through seven games this post-season, though, it seems offensive depth is also one of this Nashville team’s strengths. Because of that, it’s getting all the more difficult to find holes in this Predators team, and if things keep going this way, Nashville has to be considered a serious threat the rest of the way and a club Stanley Cup hopefuls should be keeping an eye on as the post-season progresses.
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