The biggest story heading into Game 5 of the Western Conference final was, for obvious reasons, the injury to Ryan Johansen. The Nashville Predators announced Friday that Johansen, their top-line center, would be out for the remainder of the post-season after suffering acute compartment syndrome in his thigh, an ailment which required immediate medical attention and will sideline Johansen for months.
It was the severity of the injury, the unexpected announcement, the impact on the lineup and the abruptness to which Johansen’s season came to a close that made his loss the headline. But to focus solely on the loss of Johansen was to gloss over the fact that Anaheim was dealing with bumps and bruises of their own. And while the loss of Patrick Eaves, who has been out since the second-round series against the Edmonton Oilers, has dinged the Ducks’ depth throughout five games against Nashville, there may not be a loss that’s as impactful in Anaheim as that of Rickard Rakell.
Losing Rakell to a lower-body injury heading into Game 5 hurt for a multitude of reasons. Sure, the Ducks still boasted serious depth without Rakell in the lineup — Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler are solid down the middle and post-season performer Jakob Silfverberg and suddenly hot Corey Perry have been stuffing the stat sheet — but losing Rakell was to be without a 33-goal scorer and a winger who has potted seven goals in the post-season. Not only that, but through the first four games of the series, it’s almost inarguable that Rakell had been one of Anaheim’s best forwards.
In a series in which the Ducks have been largely dominated in the possession game, Rakell was managing the third best 5-on-5 Corsi For percentage of any Duck at 47.6 percent. In terms of shots making it through, Rakell had produced a 5-on-5 shots for rate of 50.7 percent. When it came to scoring chances, Rakell was also among the best Anaheim had to offer. He was on-ice for 23 for while having 30 go against, good for a 43.4 percent rate, fourth-best on the Ducks. And Rakell was worlds better than all but Perry when it came to high-danger shots, on-ice for 11 top-notch chances while only surrendering eight against. The result of Rakell’s stellar play was three 5-on-5 goals for and not a single goal against.
So, Rakell wasn’t just producing shots and opportunities for the Ducks, he was actually helping them come out on the favorable end of things at five-a-side. But that was lost in Game 5 and, as Game 6 approaches, he’s set to be out of action again. It was announced by coach Randy Carlyle that Rakell has been left behind in Anaheim, unable to skate in what could be the series’ deciding game. The reason that’s a tough blow for the Ducks, though, goes beyond what he was able to produce on the score sheet.
The toughest test for Anaheim, as it was for the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks before them, is finding a way to consistently produce against the incredibly tough defense that Nashville possesses, and the only way to really have any success is through great depth. As noted, the Ducks still have a good amount of that in their top six with Rakell and Eaves out of the lineup, but the issue, which was clear in Game 5, is that the absences remove an offensive threat from the bottom of the lineup, making it all too easy for the Nashville to match defensive strength against Anaheim’s top attackers.
Through the first four games of the series, Rakell’s presence in the top six garnered a lot of defensive attention. When he and his linemates were on the ice, it meant the Predators were often throwing defensemen P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm or Ryan Ellis over the boards. Nashville’s focus on slowing down Rakell and the rest of the top six allowed Anaheim to get an offensive weapon onto the third line, which led to prime ice time against the Predators’ third pairing of Matt Irwin and Yannick Weber. Primarily, that meant Nick Ritchie hit the ice against Nashville’s third pair and it worked in Anaheim’s favor. Ritchie helped produce two 5-on-5 goals against the Irwin-Weber unit through four games.
However, in Game 5, the Predators were able to use the Rakell injury and the shuffled Ducks lines to their advantage and that’s exactly what Nashville did with Rakell out and Ritchie moved up to fill his place. Despite Anaheim boasting the last change and the chance to throw whoever they wanted over the boards, the Ducks stacked their top two lines and, as a result, were only able to get their top attackers on the ice for roughly two minutes against the Predators’ bottom pairing in Game 5. That more often than not meant Nashville coach Peter Laviolette was able to match his top four rearguards against Anaheim’s top threats.
The results weren’t great for the Ducks. In the limited time against the Irwin-Weber pairing, the top six had roughly 60 percent of the shot attempts. But, again, those minutes were only limited, and against the Subban-Ekholm and Ellis-Josi pairings, Anaheim’s shot attempts rate dipped to 43 percent. Anaheim's bottom two lines, sans a top scoring threat, struggled to produce all that much against the third-pairing, too. Combined, Irwin and Weber were on ice for five attempts for and six against, two scoring chances for and two against and the duo wasn't scored on.
If the Predators were going to win this series, it was almost certainly going to be by using their remarkable defensive depth to suffocate and shut down the offensive opportunities afforded to the Ducks. And that’s why shaking the Predators’ top pairings and getting good match-ups is where the difficulty now lies for the Ducks, especially as the series shifts to Nashville for a crucial sixth game. With the last change, Laviolette will have the opportunity to ensure that his top pairings don’t leave the ice when Anaheim’s top-six forwards are over the boards. That poses a serious problem for the Ducks and one that could be their downfall heading into a do-or-die Game 6.
(Advanced statistics via NaturalStatTrick)
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