When Matt Cullen scored Tuesday night against Edmonton—a beautiful diving move as the puck kicked off the end wall, he managed to do something rarely done this season: he scored a Predators goal by someone not named Neal, Ribeiro or Forsberg, or occasionally Weber or Smith.
The Predators have scored 38 goals on the season. The top line of James Neal, Mike Ribeiro and Filip Forsberg have accounted for 19 of those goals or exactly 50 percent. Defenseman Shea Weber has potted four goals, and forward Craig Smith five. In sum, these five players have scored 28 of Nashville’s 38 goals.
Wednesday morning, in a rehash of the previous night’s contest against the Oilers, local radio host Mark Howard talked about “an element of fool’s gold” surrounding the team, and while he stopped short of conferring that label upon the Predators, there is some evidence that the team now sitting atop the Central Division may be doing so on a house built of cards.
Special Teams Fail
It isn’t just the lopsided nature of who’s doing the scoring for Nashville; it is also the total failure of the Predator specialty teams. Both the power play and the penalty kill rank in the lower third of the NHL. The power play, ranked No. 22, actually marks an improvement, but the penalty kill, which kills off just 73 percent, is seriously concerning. To their credit, the Predators have shown a remarkable tendency toward discipline for the most part this season, and also put themselves in good position when they can so that failed kills don’t otherwise hurt the team.
Edmonton’s failure to cash in on the power play in Nashville Tuesday, even with a worse success rate than the Predators, wasn’t really a function of the Predator kill as much as it was the inability of the Oilers to finish the job. One particular power play saw star winger Nail Yakupov shank one shot and miss the net on another, about half a dozen passes right through the throat of the Predator defensive box surrounding the two tries. But the game seemed to play out backward. The Predators scored three goals in the first period, enough to win the game, while the Oilers dominated the second, and for the early part of the third period, both teams approached each other with a tentativeness like that typical of a first period. The early goals kept Nashville out of trouble.
First Line Chemistry
Two of the three goals, by the way, were scored by Ribeiro and Forsberg. The chemistry between Neal and Ribeiro is real, but Forsberg seems to be the wild card that makes the line what it is. It doesn’t seem a mystery that the fourth line centered by Paul Gaustad was an early-season offensive hit while Forsberg was on it. Moved now to the first line, Forsberg has been putting up undeniable numbers, with six goals and 10 points in the last six games alone.
Ribeiro and Neal’s stats are almost mirrored images of each other. Ribeiro has four goals and nine assists, while Neal has eight goals and four assists. That essentially speaks to what both men do—Ribeiro passes and Neal shoots. But Forsberg starts plays, finishes them, and sometimes both in the same sequence.
Can one line carry the team indefinitely? Experience tells us no. And that’s why Matt Cullen has begun to matter. Since returning from injury at the beginning of the road trip that took the Predators to Western Canada plus Dallas and St. Louis, Cullen, a veteran centerman, has delivered two goals and five points in seven games. It’s a breath of fresh air for a team that features one line—that of Calle Jarnkrok, Olli Jokinen and Gabriel Bourque—that hasn’t scored a single goal between them this season.
And there are probably big changes yet to come. Colin Wilson is dealing with some sort of lower-body injury, while Victor Stalberg hurt his knee on a conditioning assignment in the AHL. In the meantime, Mike Fisher’s return from an Achilles injury is likely to happen before month’s end.
The Predators can only hope their rearranged house of cards has a firmer foundation.
Alex is a native of Nashville, Tennessee. He has four years of reporting experience, both sports and news, mostly in newspapers. He holds a M.S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, in New York City, and a B.S. in journalism from Middle Tennessee State University. He is a former news and sports editor at the MTSU student paper, Sidelines, and interned at the Tennessean. Raised in a football family, he left the reservation and found an obsession in hockey.