With the Stanley Cup Final set to begin Monday evening, previews and predictions aplenty adorn the news sites and forums of the hockey world. Having been a contender for the last decade or so, everyone knows the Pittsburgh Penguins inside and out. But what about the Nashville Predators?
Long a team that was just sort of “there,” the Preds have broken through this postseason and now sit only four wins away from the Stanley Cup. This run came as a complete surprise to many, so there is a dearth of information out there on just what’s made Nashville so successful all of a sudden. Lucky for you, I’ve got your back.
For the fans of the 29 other National Hockey League teams, here is your handy guide to the Nashville Predators.
How The Predators Got Here
Nashville played a healthy 16 games on their way to the Final, taking down the perennial contender Chicago Blackhawks (four games), the perennially disappointing St. Louis Blues (six games) and the perennially unpleasant Anaheim Ducks (six games) along the way.
The Predators have ridden goaltender Pekka Rinne (.941 save percentage) and a highly successful penalty kill (88.1 percent, which would have led the league during the regular season by a significant margin) to the best goals against during this postseason, at 1.81 per game played.
This defensive prowess jives well with what they’ve been able to do on the offensive side of the puck, with Nashville averaging 2.94 goals per game in the playoffs, second only to the Pittsburgh (3.06).
Nashville shows similarly well in advanced metrics, with both their Corsi For (51.07 percent) and Fenwick For (50.56 percent) measures on the positive side of the ledger. They’ve parlayed these good possession numbers into great practical results, generating 55.56 percent of scoring chances.
Though the Preds’ PDO skews somewhat high, at 103.44 (a marginally high shooting percentage combined with Rinne’s otherworldly save percentage), it should be noted that the Penguins, at 102.49, have been similarly lucky (higher shooting percentage, lower save percentage).
Bridgestone Arena Atmosphere and Buzz
Smashville, the nickname for the Predators’ playoff movement, has made its way into the hockey world’s lexicon, as the mainstream media has had its first real look at what a deep Predators playoff run looks like. From to the liberal use of the goal horn, to public address announcer (and hype man) Paul McCann (“Thanks, Paul!”), to the primal goodness that is the Smash Car, Nashville’s game operations and fan experience are tip-top.
The fans have also eagerly embraced the Predators’ attempts to tap into Nashville’s culture and traditions, from country music, to professional wrestling, to the Tennessee Titans. Instead of marketing hockey as some novelty entertainment option for Nashvillians, the Predators have woven themselves into the fabric of the city, a case study in how to properly market hockey in non-traditional markets.
Don’t believe me? Just wait ‘till Game 3.
On Offense: Scoring by Committee
As mentioned, the Predators have had few problems scoring goals this postseason, never being shut out and only having been held to one goal on two occasions (one of them, a 1-0 win). However, they now face perhaps the most threatening offensive team in the NHL in the Penguins, who are averaging 3.05 goals per game in the playoffs.
Surprisingly, the Predators are about even with Pittsburgh in shot generation, with 30 apiece, on average, per game. Nashville even earns more scoring chances per 60 minutes (8.04) than the Pens (7.52), so perhaps the offensive matchup is not quite as lopsided as it initially appears.
That said, Preds’ first-line centre (and, up until his injury, Conn Smythe candidate) Ryan Johansen will not be returning this season, nor will rookie winger Kevin Fiala. Team captain and second-line centre Mike Fisher hopes to return for Game 1 of the Final, though how effective he will be coming off an “apparent head injury” remains to be seen. Winger Craig Smith, he of the always mysterious “lower-body injury,” is also tabbed to return Monday night.
Here’s the thing, though: the Predators are not a one-line team. Yes, the JOFA line is, when healthy, one of the most formidable trios in the NHL. However, much like the Penguins (though with much less star-power), the Preds find scoring throughout their lineup.
Colton Sissons had a hat trick in Game 6 against the Ducks, while Austin Watson netted a pair. Four of Nashville’s top eight playoff scorers are defensemen. Deadline acquisition P.A. Parenteau can’t even make it into the lineup, for crying out loud.
Furthermore, the Nashville offense has not yet given all it has to give. James Neal has only tallied five goals and seven points in 16 games. The 2016-17 regular season marked his ninth-straight 20-goal campaign – and he is capable of much, much more (40 goals in 2011-12; 31 last season). Will he break out in the Final? Or how about Colin Wilson, who has a 20-goal season to his credit? What about Craig Smith, who has three?
The only Predators’ regular to not make it onto the scoresheet these playoffs is, oddly, Mike Fisher. That the Preds have been able to accomplish what they have with literally zero offensive production from their second-line centre (who also plays on the power play) is nothing short of mind-boggling.
If one or more of these guys get going, look out.
On Defense: A Top Four for the Ages
The Nashville Predators have shown these playoffs what observers already suspected coming into the season: that they have, hands down, the best defense corps in the NHL. With four first-pairing defensemen that can contribute at both ends of the ice, the Preds are the team best-positioned to combat the litany of offensive weapons at Pittsburgh’s disposal. Additionally, Nashville will not have to be overly worried about line matchups, as they have two pairings that should be able to effectively defend against the best the Penguins have to offer.
The Predators suppress shots better than the Penguins, giving up just under 30 per game, on average. Part of this is due to the defensive shell Nashville retreats into when the opposition sets up in their end. Instead of chasing teams around the zone hoping to create a turnover, the Preds wait patiently for their opponent to either make a mistake or take a shot, before retrieving the puck and moving it swiftly up ice.
The Preds follow the Pittsburgh model of defensive zone operations, preferring to spend as little time there as possible. And with Mattias Ekholm, P.K. Subban, Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis as your top four defensemen, you can rest assured the puck will be retrieved and broken out with maximum speed and efficiency.
All this assumes the opposition can even make it into the Nashville end in the first place. The Predators tend to clog up the neutral zone, disrupting rushes and forcing turnovers. Their hyper-aggressive counterpunching can make teams hesitant to take risks, which in turn plays right into the hands of Nashville’s structured defensive style.
In Goal: Remarkable Rinne
If the opposition does manage to get through both the neutral zone and the Predators’ defensive shell, they still have to find a way to get the puck past Pekka Rinne. Rinne has a .941 save percentage through three rounds, and has really only had one or two bad games. He also excels at handling the puck, which can further limit opposition time in the Nashville end.
Rinne has shown great mental toughness in rebounding from bad outings – and bad goals within otherwise stellar performances, and is the Predators’ leading candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy.
A massive goaltender, listed at 6-foot-5 and 217 pounds, Rinne has used his size to his advantage in these playoffs, finally becoming comfortable behind his elite defensemen. Rinne was known as a netminder who seemed to move far too much for a man of his size, which probably contributed to his erratic statistics throughout his career. Full disclosure, I even questioned the wisdom of starting him in the playoffs (I’ll take the L on that one).
Given his exceptional performance this postseason, there can be no debate that the longest-serving Nashville Predator is the right man for the job. He has been calm and in-control, relying on his size and positioning to make saves – only engaging his athleticism when needed, rather that pinballing around the net and pulling himself out of position.
How the Predators Prey on Opponents
On offense, the Preds play in straight lines; fast, hard, in-your-face hockey. Though not overly physical themselves, Nashville was able to effectively weather the Ducks’ emphasis on playing the body, still managing to average over three goals per game despite being mugged at every opportunity.
When defending, Nashville clogs up the neutral zone, making it extremely difficult for the opposition to break through and enter the Predators end. If they do, the Preds employ a collapsing style of defense, taking away shooting lanes and frustrating opponents, all the while conserving energy for their frighteningly quick counterattack.
If Pekka Rinne continues his sparkling play and the Predators don’t incur any more major injuries, their balanced attack and speed in all areas of the ice will be a significant challenge for the Penguins.
How the Predators Become the Prey
Last series, the Predators ran into a defense corps that rivalled their own – and it showed. The lack of top-end skill on the Predators became readily apparent once the Ducks figured out the simplicity to how Nashville’s bottom three lines operate. Despite scoring six goals in Game 6, the Preds only had 18 shots on net (16, when you take away the two empty-net goals).
Though the Penguins have significantly less skill on their back end than the Ducks, especially considering they are lacking the formidable Kris Letang, Nashville could find themselves wanting for creativity, should Pittsburgh’s blue line figure out the Predators’ offensive modus operandi.
Additionally, if Rinne falters in the Predators net, Nashville could be in trouble against the all-world Pittsburgh offense. The Preds allowed 41 shots to the Ducks in Game 6, on home ice, in an elimination game. Perhaps all the injuries are finally getting to them. Or, maybe they just had a subpar outing. Regardless, the Predators got smacked around pretty badly by Anaheim in Game 6 and were very fortunate to escape with the victory.
The Predators are exceeding expectations on the defensive side of the puck. Is this unsustainable? Or a result of developing team chemistry? The next seven games (or less!) should show us.
Nashville’s Cheerability Factor
The Preds have many great storylines to get behind. Pekka Rinne has been in Nashville longer than anyone. Mike Fisher has been through the wars, too. And how about overcoming the freak injuries that have depleted their roster?
But we’re burying the lead here: last summer, the Montreal Canadiens, fed up with defenseman P.K. Subban being good in front of a camera and donating to sick children, shipped the flamboyant superstar defenseman to the Predators in exchange for Shea Weber, the Predators’ captain and fellow standout rearguard.
Habs general manager Marc Bergevin said it would make them “a better team,” and proceeded to throw shade at Subban throughout the summer. So how hilarious would it be if P.K. hoists Lord Stanley’s Mug, less than 12 months later? Especially after the Canadiens crashed out of the playoffs in the first round, due in large part to an inability to move the puck and generate offense?
On a less vindictive level, a Nashville Predators Stanley Cup would be a success for the NHL with regards to their much-maligned Sunbelt expansion. Nashville has proven to be a fantastic market for hockey, with fans’ love for the team running far deeper than mere wins and losses. The fans are wholly engaged every night, perhaps more so than any other fan base in the league. The local culture scene has eagerly accepted the Preds, as well. Truly, the present-day Predators are already a shining example of how to run and market an NHL team in a non-traditional market. A Stanley Cup would simply be the icing on the cake.
Game Time: The Stanley Cup Final Awaits
Well folks, this is it. 1,230 regular-season games. 81 more in the playoffs. And here we sit, seven games (or less) away from crowning the 2016-17 Stanley Cup champion. This was the series we all wanted; two fast, skilled, exciting teams that play fast, skilled, exciting hockey. The best forward corps in the NHL versus the best defense. Two goaltenders who’ve done it before versus one with something to prove. A chance to repeat versus a chance to make history.
(All advanced stats are thanks to Corsica. All metrics are at five-on-five, unless otherwise specified.)
Peter Ferrell covers the Florida Panthers and Toronto Maple Leafs, with a side of jersey and logo (over)analysis, for The Hockey Writers.