PITTSBURGH – It was an historic performance in a memorably bizarre game. Yes, the Nashville Predators lost the Stanley Cup final series opener Monday, but they became the first team in final history to hold an opponent shotless for a period. Plus they did it for almost two periods. Defeat or not, that’s worth talking about.
But you know that already. Plenty of ink has been spilled over the past two days about Nashville keeping Pittsburgh from getting any shots. The questions to ask now are how the Preds pulled off such a unique feat and how they plan to duplicate that effort versus a star-studded Penguins team sure to come out stronger in Game 2 on Wednesday night.
1. Don’t fear the Penguins’ star power
It might sound counterintuitive, but Preds defenseman Mattias Ekholm spoke at Wednesday’s morning skate about viewing the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin as mere mortals rather than monster threats.
“Just try to treat them as any other player in the league and the top players we’ve faced before in the three past series we’ve had,” Ekholm said. “Just trying to keep them on the outside, limit their chances. If we can keep (the team) to a shot total of 12, we’re going to be pretty successful coming forward.”
Roman Josi views the stars a bit differently, treating them with more awareness. He singled out Crosby’s ability to make quick cutbacks down low and Malkin’s 1-on-1 moves as main hazards to watch for. Crosby, Malkin and Phil Kessel combined for just four shots in Game 1, with three coming from Crosby. So maybe Ekholm is onto something given his team shut down Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Vladimir Tarasenko and Ryan Getzlaf already in these playoffs. The Preds’ top four of Josi, Ryan Ellis, Ekholm and P.K. Subban doesn’t play scared, albeit Josi keeps tabs on who’s out there against him and how they can hurt him.
2. Apply back pressure to Penguins’ puck carriers
The Preds were defensive fortress for an extended stretch of Game 1 but didn’t do so by collapsing into a phalanx. Blueliner Ryan Ellis singled out burying the puck deep in the Penguins’ zone on the forecheck and back pressure as two keys to stymying Pittsburgh in Game 1. The Preds were the aggressor, even in their defensive play, doggedly chasing down the Penguins’ puck carriers, forcing them to make early decisions. That killed a lot of chances before they could turn into shots on goal. But Ellis predicts a change in the Pens’ thinking going forward.
“We’re going to expect them to throw a lot of pucks at our net tonight,” he said. “Every game presents a different challenge. For us, going into this one, we liked our game. We’d like to be similar to last game but just with a different result.”
3. Keep the master plan a secret
The Predators’ defensemen speak from their experience in the trenches against the Pittsburgh forwards. The man overseeing the team game plan, though, is coach Peter Laviolette, and he has no intention of sharing exactly how he believes his team smothered Pittsburgh’s shooters.
“No disrespect, but I’m not going to go through X’s and O’s with the media, sorry,” he said.
End of discussion. Sorry. I tried. But we can read between the lines there, and the fact Laviolette is so protective of his strategy implies it just might be working. Wednesday's Game 2 shot counter will be extremely telling. If the Penguins struggle to generate chances on Pekka Rinne’s net again, it’s time for Pittsburgh to start worrying.
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