NASHVILLE – After running his team through an upbeat practice Friday afternoon, Nashville Predators coach Peter Laviolette reflected back on the first 120 minutes of the Stanley Cup final. And he’s really, really liked about 110 of them. There has been a lot to like, since the Predators are, for the fourth series in a row, the better team on the ice. They’ve basically played the game they’ve wanted to play and limited the Pittsburgh Penguins chances.
The fact that they find themselves down 2-0 going into Game 3 Saturday night is due to two factors. The first is goaltending. And the second is the Penguins’ quick-strike offense has received timely scoring and the Predators have not.
The remedy for the first is simple. Pekka Rinne, who is a huge reason for the Predators being here in the first place, has to be better. Full stop. Whether or not Laviolette feels compelled to start him or backup Juuse Saros has become something of a cause celebre here, almost as big a deal as P.K. Subban guaranteeing a win in Game 3. (People just won’t let go of that one, but what’s he supposed to do? Guarantee they’ll lose? Plus, there are no ramifications, absolutely none, if he’s wrong, so why wouldn’t he do it?)
If Rinne doesn’t improve by leaps and bounds, the series is over and we’re all going home early. But the Predators are confident that won’t be the case.
“He’s one of the best goaltenders in the league, so he’s the last of our worries, that’s for sure,” Subban said. “When the occasion comes and he needs to step up, he’s always there. So there’s no question he’ll be there.”
The issue of offense, well, that’s a little trickier. As it turns out, the Predators are missing Ryan Johansen even more than the Penguins are missing Kris Letang. Viktor Arvidsson, in particular, has struggled without his centerman, registering just one assist in the four games since Johansen was hurt. Prior to the injury, Arvidsson had 2-8-10 totals in 14 games and had 36 shots, but has just six shots on goal since. Filip Forsberg was productive for the two games against Anaheim without Johansen, but has no points against the Penguins.
So it’s a given that they have to step things up as well. But another way the Predators could increase their offensive punch is to get some players with established offensive credentials in the lineup. It’s no coincidence that Cody McLeod did not play in the first round against the Chicago Blackhawks, a team that most represents the Penguins. You could argue McLeod was a positive presence against the St. Louis Blues and Anaheim, but he’s hardly necessary against Pittsburgh. In fact, he’s hurting his team by taking penalties in the offensive zone and essentially contributing nothing offensively. Vern Fiddler is another solid veteran, but the Predators need players who can score right now, not guys who are great in the room. Both McLeod and Fiddler have had epically bad possession numbers.
Meanwhile, the lines that Laviolette used in the first two games remained the same in practice, with Harry Zolnierczyk, Miikka Salomaki and P.A. Parenteau skating as the extras. How about having Zolnierczyk taking Frederick Gaudreau’s spot on the third line, then moving Gaudreau to center the fourth line with Salomaki and Austin Watson? (For my money, Parenteau would be a great addition. He has struggled badly since joining the Preds, but has two 20-goal seasons on his NHL resume and at least gives you a fighting chance to produce a modicum of offense on the fourth line. His possession numbers have been dreadful, the worst on the team in the playoffs, which is probably why he’s not playing.)
Laviolette does not discuss player personnel decisions so he wasn’t about to tip his hand. But he did put forth a spirited defense of McLeod when asked about what McLeod has contributed.
“Cody has been a warrior for us,” Laviolette said. “He’s a hard-working guy that plays a north-south game and finishes his hits. He’s great in the room, a great teammate. That being said, the decisions go into every game. We have to look at every series, then we have to look at every game as a single entity to make sure we’re putting the right pieces on the ice to try and be successful. There are always adjustments, always moves. Certainly Cody brings a lot to the table when he’s in the lineup.”
But what he doesn’t bring is offense and that’s what the Predators need most right now. They’re playing against the best offensive team in the NHL and one that has an ability to turn a dearth of chances into a lot of offense. If the Predators are going to make a series of this, they have to start at least being able to hang with the Penguins offensively and the players they’re employing right now are not capable of that. And we’re basically seeing where the Penguins’ huge advantage down the middle of the ice is becoming more of a factor in the series.
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