Welcome back to the second installation of Predators Weekly! There isn’t much on the table this week, but the good news is there will be lots of action in the weeks to follow. The playoffs are around the corner! Nonetheless, there are still some storylines, so let’s get started!
Predators End Regular Season With Decisive Win
In the last edition of Predators Weekly, I pointed out that Monday might be Pekka Rinne‘s last start in a Nashville Predators uniform. Sure enough, head coach John Hynes announced in a press conference prior to the game that he would be starting him in the regular-season finale against the Carolina Hurricanes. The 38-year-old goaltender didn’t get a ton of starts this season, primarily due to Juuse Saros going on a Vezina-level tear, but he proved that there was still some gas left in the tank. He was dominant in the blue paint all night. His puck tracking was excellent and, paired with his usual elite movement and athleticism, it caused the Hurricanes fits. On the day dubbed “Pekka Rinne Day” by fans and media alike, he sure did meet the hype.
The Predators lineup took advantage of the fantastic goaltending from Rinne and scored five goals in total on Hurricanes goaltender Petr Mrazek, who seemed to be struggling with almost every aspect of goaltending. His rebound control was poor, his positioning was flawed, and he appeared to be out of it mentally. It might just be an anomaly, but it isn’t encouraging if you’re Rod Brind’Amour.
A shorthanded goal from the speedster Rocco Grimaldi was the first domino to fall, as he broke away from Hurricanes defender Jake Gardiner and made a sweet deke from forehand to backhand that got Mrazek moving. Next up, Matt Duchene showcased his silky mitts thanks to gorgeous puck movement and fantastic awareness from Ryan Johansen and Yakov Trenin. It takes lots of skill to pull the puck across the top of the crease with ease and deposit it in the net as Duchene did.
The floodgates opened from there, as Duchene potted another one as the extra attacker on the delayed penalty. Next, Johansen added one off of a tremendous low-to-high pass to the slot from Filip Forsberg. Finally, Tanner Jeannot tallied the second shorthanded goal for the Predators, outworking Gardiner just as Grimaldi did to break free and pot one that leaked through the goaltender. It was an incredibly fitting end to the emotional night, as the man who was being honored, Rinne, took a lap around the ice, thanking fans as they applauded and cheered him. Mouthing the words “I love you, guys” while trying to hold back tears as he glided around the ice, it’s hard not to ponder what the future holds for the staple of Nashville hockey. Whether he stays or goes, he will always have a home in the Music City.
Something big also happened on Monday outside of the win: the Predators increased capacity for the playoffs. However, to be in accordance with NHL guidelines and procedures, the team had to up their capacity to 70 percent. That means 12,135 raucous Predators (and some Hurricanes) fans will be in attendance starting in Game 3 of the series. It was insanely loud in Bridgestone Arena with 4,000 fans, so it’s crazy to imagine the inevitable intensity from the Loyal Legion after being starved of in-person playoff hockey for over a year.
Potential Playoff Lineups
The Hurricanes will be the Predators’ first-round matchup in the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs. I wrote about what players to look out for and which guys could make a difference for the team, but what exactly does the lineup look like going into the first game? It certainly is a quandary, considering the depth that the Predators have shown to have these last few months. There are some obvious choices — Saros, Forsberg, Johansen, Duchene, Josi, Ellis, Ekholm, and more — but other players down the lineup might not get a shot. The consequence of having so much depth is that, inevitably, people won’t get to play.
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Coach Hynes might not slot guys like Grimaldi and even Mathieu Olivier into the lineup with the emergence of players like Jeannot and Viktor Arvidsson coming back from an injury labelled day-to-day. Some would prefer to have them, and others wouldn’t. At the end of the day, Hynes has to come up with the roster that not only suits his needs against a physical and fast Hurricanes team, but one that can hold their own in the skill department as well.
My forward lines would look like this:
Nick Cousins/Viktor Arvidsson
I’ll go over it briefly. Duchene deserves to be on the first line. He’s produced far more than the scoresheet shows and is consistently held back by his bottom-six linemates. He played exceptionally well with Forsberg and Johansen and has shown that having first-line caliber players flanking him on both sides is vital to his production. While it hurt to break Granlund up from Jarnkrok and Kunin, I couldn’t put Johansen on the third line. Kunin and Jarnkrok can both score goals. They’re no Forsberg and Tolvanen, but they can get the job done when necessary. It is vital to keep Johansen with players that can score to keep the positive vibe *wink wink*.
The third line should still be effective, as Haula and Granlund used to play with each other on the Minnesota Wild. Pending an Arvidsson return, I have him slotting in on the third line. He is obviously a volume-shooting goal scorer that has yet to put up the numbers fans want to see. As for Cousins, I put him there so as not to separate him from Haula and depending on Arvidsson’s return. The fourth line is The Herd Line, except for Olivier. He was an especially tough cut, but it’s hard to justify his place in the lineup.
As for the other cuts, there just wasn’t enough space. I couldn’t slot Grimaldi in without replacing a player that has played at his level or better. It’s tough because Grimaldi is a great heart-and-soul player who brings his all every night. However, he couldn’t scratch the surface.
On to the defense:
The first two pairs are pretty straightforward. Carrier has been fantastic with Ekholm, and since coming off his injury, is getting into the groove again as time goes on. Fabbro and Benning looked reasonably solid in the games they’ve played together and could be highly stable in this series.
As for goaltending, Saros has to be the starter. As much as everyone loves Rinne, he has proven to be a top-tier starter in the NHL. His numbers, especially at 5v5, are among the league’s best, and it would be the wrong choice to start the older of the two Finnish goalies.
No, I don’t think that my lineup above will be the one that Hynes puts out on Monday, May 17. That’s what I believe the lineup should look like and would give the Predators the best chance at stealing a game in Carolina. That being said, I do think it needs to have that mix of players. Why fix something that isn’t broken? All of those players are either roster mainstays or guys who have come in to contribute when needed the most. It will be interesting to see what Hynes comes up with, and despite the uncertainty with the lineup, playoff hockey is back.
Jeff is a consistent source for Red Wings content at The Hockey Writers. He was formerly a member of the Predators writing team, and he enjoys watching all sorts of hockey, from juniors to the pros. Jeff enjoys playing for his high school and local teams in Nashville as well. He’s a big proponent of hockey analytics, and you’ll often see him using lots of statistics and data to back up his main talking points. You can find his work here or check out his contributions on his Substack, Last Word on Hockey, On the Forecheck, Broad Street Hockey, Hockey Wilderness, and Puck Empire. Lastly, you can listen to him on the Youth Movement Podcast presented by On the Forecheck and the Triple Shift Podcast. For any inquiries about interviews or questions about statistics, analytics, or just general hockey opinions, you can message his Twitter, @jjmid04.