The Nashville Predators and Carolina Hurricanes series is tied at two games apiece. It has been a tale of two halves for the Predators, as they dropped both games in Carolina and looked fairly pedestrian while doing so. The power play was awful, both structure and production-wise, and they struggled to put a puck past goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic. Juuse Saros did essentially all he could for a Predators team in disarray in almost every facet of the game. However, the series moved to Nashville, and the gold jerseys that once looked tired and unable to compete became reinvigorated. They moved with speed, hit smarter, forechecked with a purpose, won puck battles, and looked better on special teams.
No doubt, the home crowd revitalized a downtrodden team, cheering at almost every possible moment. However, there is much more to the Predators’ two double-overtime wins than the Predators’ faithful being extremely loud. It would be a problem if I didn’t mention the top three defensemen — Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi, and Mattias Ekholm — because they have all played their part in the series being tied to this point. The same can be said for a guy like Mikael Granlund, who had a rough first game by every standard, but bounced back just in time to help the Predators claw back into the series. That being said, the following things have been the differences in winning and losing hockey games against a high-powered Hurricanes team.
I’ve rambled about Saros so much that it’s probably old at this point. The problem is his effect on the Predators cannot be overstated. Two 50-plus save outings and a Predators franchise record later, the series is tied. It’s truly incredible what he has managed to do even in this short, four-game series. Blame for the first two games can’t be placed on him, seeing as the Predators couldn’t throw a ball into the ocean if they were standing on the beach. It was tough to watch, as Saros constantly bailed the team out, but got nothing in return on the other end. I mean, look at this ridiculous save on a two-on-one that the Predators gave up on the power play.
It’s been most of the same through four games for the young Finnish netminder, as he’s had to bail the Preds out from time to time. As far as stats go, he has a 0.45 goals saved above expected per Evolving-Hockey‘s model, and among goalies that have played two or more games, he has the seventh-best save percentage at .929. It’s been a consistent theme this year. The Predators play around average hockey, and goaltending bails them out. The good thing for Predators fans is that Saros is a bona fide starter and will continue to be until Yaroslav Askarov comes over from Russia.
Suppression of Hurricanes Speed
The Hurricanes are a speed-oriented team. Players like Martin Necas, Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, Andrei Svechnikov, and even depth mainstays like Brock McGinn all use their speed to their advantage. The Predators run a 1-3-1 neutral zone defense scheme, so the Hurricanes and head coach Rod Brind’Amour devised a plan to beat it. The Hurricanes employ a 3-2 breakout, with three guys down low and two up in the neutral zone. The two players find holes in between the three Nashville defenders and bounce passes off the wall. Since the three Hurricanes players have speed, they continue the retrieval process. It’s an effective strategy and one that has proven to work time and time again against this Predators team. It creates lots of holes to fill both offensively and defensively, and helps establish offensive zone time.
When the Predators have beaten the Hurricanes, they’ve used the space to their advantage. They’ve taken away the time and space that make the top players for Carolina so effective and used it to establish a physical presence and create situations for stretch passes. Space and transition are the key factors here for both teams, and the Predators using them has been the deciding variable in both double-overtime wins. Most recently, we saw Luke Kunin take advantage of a wide-open slot thanks to a puzzling route from Dougie Hamilton, and before that, Matt Duchene used his speed and edges to maneuver around Jake Bean.
Suppose the Predators are going to take the series. In that case, it requires a “no shift off” mentality and utilizing every inch of ice given to them, especially when Carolina presses its forecheck as hard as they usually do.
The Top Line Staying Together And Continuing Its Excellence
The line of Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, and Duchene was not present in the first two games of the series. Head coach John Hynes announced before the series even began that it would not happen, but due to an injury to Viktor Arvidsson and some line shuffling, we finally got to see the line in action again. They played once together in the last game of the regular season and looked fantastic. Their puck movement was good, and Duchene tallied two goals that he very much needed to get him trending in the right direction on the scoresheet. So far, they have not disappointed. This thread by Predators AtoZ Sports writer Alex Daugherty paints an incredible picture of just how good they’ve been.
2021 playoff performance (even strength):— Alex Daugherty (@AlexDaugherty1) May 24, 2021
Duchene + Johansen + Forsberg (32 minutes)
MacKinnon + Landeskog + Rantanen (58 minutes)
Drilling down a little further.— Alex Daugherty (@AlexDaugherty1) May 24, 2021
What the Avs’ top line gains in offensive threat, they lose in defense.
xGF – 3.56
xGA – 2.39 #Preds‘ top line has been tougher to generate chances against:
xGF – 2.04
xGA – 0.74
Of course, no one says that Johansen, Duchene, and Forsberg are anywhere near as good as Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, and Mikko Rantanen. However, it goes to show just how great that line has been in comparison to their peers. It’s a line that Hynes needs to keep together. Even if they don’t produce a ton on the scoresheet, they create offense and aren’t costing the team defensively.
The Predators can beat the Hurricanes. However, the margin for error is extremely thin. Coaching has to be almost perfect, and the play on the ice needs to be extremely precise. The Predators need to take advantage of every opportunity they get because there won’t be many of them.