Predators Prowl: Starting 2019 on a Roll

The Predators Prowl is a weekly post on how the Nashville Predators performed the previous week. Generally published on Tuesdays, Predators Prowl isn’t a recap of games, but rather a look at the themes, news and rumors that occurred throughout the week. Let me know in the comments below your thoughts on how the team performed this week, your views on the week’s themes and any other ideas or questions you have about the team.

Related: Last Week’s Predators Prowl

The Predators ended 2018 on a low note with six losses in their final seven games. In their six losses, they scored three or more goals twice. Since the calendar flipped to 2019, the Predators have looked like a different team, with a 3-0-1 record and two shutouts in their four games.

Strong Goaltending Leads the Way

The first shutout was a 4-0 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers in the Predators’ last home game before embarking on a season-long six-game road trip. The Flyers actually controlled play with a 32-30 shot advantage, but Juuse Saros held the fort, despite a majority of Philadelphia’s shots being concentrated to the slot.

Related: Predators’ 2018-19 Mid-Season Awards

Three days later, the Predators were on the road to take on the Detroit Red Wings, a game they lost 4-3 in overtime. Once again, they were outshot, this time by a 39-30 count, including 35-21 at five-on-five. The Red Wings were plus-13 in control of scoring chances and plus-six in control of high-danger chances, both at five-on-five. Pekka Rinne allowed four goals, but the team in front of him didn’t offer much help as a large portion of Red Wings’ shots originated from below the faceoff dots. Truthfully, the Predators were lucky this game even reached overtime.

Detroit Red Wings, Nashville Predators, Shot Chart
Detroit Red Wings’ even-strength shots versus the Nashville Predators on Jan. 4, 2019. Notice the high concentration of shots in the low slot. (Created by Micah Blake McCurdy at HockeyViz).

With Detroit’s first goal, scored by Andreas Athanasiou, Predators defenseman Dan Hamhuis failed to respect Athanasiou’s speed and let him walk in on Rinne. On the second goal, a Detroit point-shot missed the net and active boards rebounded the puck to an open Thomas Vanek, who Mattias Ekholm failed to cover.

P.K. Subban was pick-pocketed on the Red Wings’ third goal, and finally, on the game-winner, Dylan Larkin was given enough room to skate in all alone on Rinne. There was also a Predators goal that was overturned due to what was deemed goaltender interference. I’m generally not one to question officiating, but really?

The next night, the Predators were in Quebec to face the Montreal Canadiens in the fifth matchup between the two teams since the Shea Weber/Subban trade, but just the second time both players were active. Both players stepped up – Weber with a goal and Subban with two assists, including the 300th of his career. The Predators controlled play and Saros stopped 27 of 28 shots with the lone goal the result of a goalie screen.

A Potential Stanley Cup Final Preview

But the highlight of the week occurred on Jan. 7 when the Predators faced the Toronto Maple Leafs at Scotiabank Arena. The Predators may have emerged with a 4-0 victory and gave Rinne his third shutout of the season, but it was a closer game than the score indicated. They had a 32-18 shot advantage, including 31-17 at five-on-five, but the Maple Leafs controlled five-on-five scoring chances and high-danger chances.

Toronto Maple Leafs Connor Brown Nashville Predators Pekka Rinne
Pekka Rinne stood tall against the Maple Leafs until the offense got going. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

The Maple Leafs controlled the first period as the Predators came out slow and struggled to gain momentum. Rinne’s ability to bail out the team and the Maple Leafs hitting three goal posts and missing the net countless times allowed the Predators to find their footing and the game was scoreless after the first period. Ekholm broke open the scoring with a power-play goal, and an Auston Matthews’ goal quickly tied it up, except that it didn’t. Predators head coach Peter Laviolette and his staff correctly challenged the goal on the basis of William Nylander being offside.

That was the only puck to enter Nashville’s net in the game and the Predators added three more goals. Although the Predators, a team that likes to play a fast-paced style and clogs up the neutral zone to force turnovers, have struggled to find their game in recent weeks, they showed up in the second and third periods against the Maple Leafs.

Related: Predicting Predators’ 2019 Storylines

They matched Toronto’s pace, quite a feat considering the talent of Maple Leaf forwards, and in some ways, played a smarter game. It was one of the best games I watched this season from a pure hockey standpoint and would certainly welcome a seven-game series between the two teams, something only be possible in the Stanley Cup Final.

Re-Introducing Your 2018-19 Nashville Predators

The Predators are finally starting to get healthy. After injuries kept Viktor Arvidsson, Filip Forsberg and Subban out of the lineup for an extended time, all three were back in the lineup against the Maple Leafs. In fact, that game was the first time since Oct. 19 that those three, plus Rinne, were in the lineup together and their returns have been noticeable.

Nashville Predators Filip Forsberg
Filip Forsberg was activated off injured reserve and made his return to the lineup against the Maple Leafs. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

Arvidsson has been on a roll with four goals and an assist since returning to the lineup. Same goes for Subban with two goals and two assists in his past three games. What is interesting is that he has been playing some with Matt Irwin on the third pair instead of with Ekholm.

Has Laviolette done this to break up the team’s talent on the blue line, providing Hamhuis with a strong partner in Ekholm, or because he wants to meticulously manage ice time, especially on this long road trip with multiple sets of back-to-backs? On Jan. 4, Subban played over 25 minutes. The next night, under 15 minutes.

What was incredible news was the return of Forsberg, the team’s most-talented forward. He came back for the game against the Maple Leafs, but didn’t play on the top line with Ryan Johansen and Arvidsson. This was likely done to allow Forsberg the room to get re-accustomed to game speed as he hasn’t played since Nov. 29. Having him back in the lineup was wonderful and provides the team with an offensive boost they’ve been missing. An aspect I forgot about his game is his willingness to be physical on the forecheck.

News, Top Performers and the Week Ahead

Arvidsson, Forsberg and Subban may be the notable names back in Nashville’s lineup, but Colton Sissons also returned to face the Canadiens after a short stint on injured reserve. Meanwhile, Kyle Turris, Mikka Salomäki and Yannick Weber remain on injured reserve and it’s unknown when any of the three will return.

Colton Sissons, Nashville Predators
Colton Sissons also returned to the lineup this week in the Predators’ game against the Canadiens. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Since the last Predators Prowl, the NHL announced its All-Star Game rosters with Roman Josi and Rinne chosen to represent the Predators on the Central Division’s roster. Forsberg was also announced as the team’s representative in the Last Men In competition. Lastly, prospect Eeli Tolvanen won gold at the 2019 World Junior Championships with Finland. He had four points, all assists, in seven tournament games.

Top Performers

  • Craig Smith – 4 goals, 1 assist
  • Mattias Ekholm – 2 goals, 3 assists, 1 power-play goal
  • P.K. Subban – 2 goals, 2 assists
  • Kevin Fiala – 1 goal, 3 assists
  • Juuse Saros – 2 starts, 2-0-0 record, 1 shutout, stopped 59 of 60 shots, .983 save percentage, 0.50 goals-against average
  • Pekka Rinne – 2 starts, 1-0-1 record, 1 shutout, stopped 53 of 57 shots, .930 save percentage, 1.92 goals-against average

The Week Ahead

  • Jan. 9 @ Chicago Blackhawks
  • Jan. 10 @ Columbus Blue Jackets
  • Jan. 13 @ Carolina Hurricanes

*All stats came from Hockey-Reference, Elite Prospects and Natural Stat Trick