Nashville Predators' playoff hopes depend on goaltending, special teams

The Nashville Predators' power play has been a team strength this season. Yup, really!

A nagging concern in the background of this Nashville Predators season has been the team's tendency to get out-shot on a regular basis. It's been noted all season long as an underlying issue with the team, although they've managed to overcome it and win often enough to make the playoffs and secure home-ice advantage against Detroit in the 1st round. But will this be a concern in the post-season?

There have been some criticisms raised about this characterization, though. How much have the team's overall numbers been dragged down by the Preds' woeful start, when Mike Fisher was still recovering from shoulder surgery and a host of rookies were pressed into key roles? How have the various mid-season acquisitions impacted the team's Shots For & Against balance? To what extent do "score effects" come into play? For example, when the Predators grab an early lead in a game, it is perhaps no surprise to see them out-shot the rest of the way.

Follow after the jump as we dig into those details...

Even Strength, Break-Even Results

To answer many of these questions, let's look at the Preds Corsi rating (the balance of Shots Attempted by the Preds vs. how many opponents have attempted) in "close" game situations (the score is within one goal during the first two periods, or tied after that). That eliminates the score effect issue, and by looking at game-by-game numbers, we can see whether the early going was particularly awful, as well as the extent to which the mid-season pickups like Andrei Kostitsyn, Hal Gill, Paul Gaustad, and Alexander Radulov are affecting things.

The following chart shows those game-by-game numbers in blue, and a 10-game moving average in red (.500 is the break-even point, with both the Preds & their opponents taking an equal number of shot attempts):

To me, there are three key issues which jump out to me when I look at this graph:

  1. At no point all season long has the team had a 10-game moving average above the .500 mark. The skaters are consistently getting out-shot, period.
  2. Indeed, those first 10 games were awful, and there was improvement from Games 10-20, but again, not to the point where the team could break even in terms of shot attempts for & against.
  3. Since the Trade Deadline (AK46 & Gaustad started playing around Game 65), there hasn't been a noticeable improvement in this performance.
This is perhaps the biggest reason why I keep wondering how guys like Brandon Yip and Matt Halischuk have gotten into the lineup more frequently than Colin Wilson of late. Banking on Pekka Rinne to stop 11 shots for every 9 you throw at the other goalie is a dangerous business.

Even Strength, Break-Even Results

The reason the Preds have been barely able to break even at Even Strength is thanks to their riding the percentages. In general 5-on-5 play (not just close situations, since I can't easily narrow that down) the Preds have the 3rd-best shooting percentage, and 7th-best save percentage in the NHL.

History tells us that these trends are not sustainable, although I'm sure there are fans who can come up with explanations which describe this team as a special case. I am open to the idea that Pekka Rinne's prowess is a significant factor in the regular season totals, as he's been above-average in Even Strength save percentage for three seasons in a row now (.925, .932, then .928 this season). On the shooting percentage side, however, banking on Nashville's continued good fortune could prove perilous, as there simply isn't any convincing evidence that teams can drive consistently higher shooting percentages than others for any length of time.

Especially against a team which dominates the flow of play at even-strength like Detroit, it will be incumbent upon Rinne to hold down the fort.

Pretty Special Special Teams

Perhaps, then, the area in which Nashville can seize advantage lies in special teams. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this season has been their power play dominance, as a rotating group of players (Colin Wilson & Craig Smith early, followed by Roman Josi and Andrei Kostitsyn later on (don't forget that Radulov guy), have managed to keep the PP goals coming for Nashville consistently. After a relatively poor start, the penalty kill has improved considerably, as acquisitions like Hal Gill and Paul Gaustad have settled in nicely.

One often-overlooked aspect of special teams is the discipline of a team to tip the balance of power plays in their favor, and avoid unnecessary penalties. The Predators have typically been pretty strong on that front, and had to kill off the 6th-fewest penalties in the league this year, while receiving the 5th-fewest power play opportunities themselves. Can a dynamic offensive presence like Alexander Radulov help draw a few more penalties from opponents who lose position on the elusive Russian? If so, that could prove to be a critical edge.

When you add up the entire balance of power play and shorthanded goals for & against, that's where the Predators have been one of the better teams in the league:

Team PP GF SH GF PP GA SH GA Special Teams Balance
Pittsburgh Penguins 57 11 33 10 +25
New Jersey Devils 46 15 27 13 +21
Vancouver Canucks 57 7 40 4 +20
Los Angeles Kings 49 9 38 2 +18
Nashville Predators 54 5 40 4 +15
New York Rangers 44 8 36 4 +12
Montreal Canadiens 43 10 36 8 +9
St. Louis Blues 45 7 40 3 +9
Carolina Hurricanes 49 12 49 4 +8
Boston Bruins 43 8 43 1 +7
Philadelphia Flyers 66 6 58 9 +5
San Jose Sharks 57 3 52 4 +4
Florida Panthers 53 4 49 6 +2
Calgary Flames 46 3 42 6 +1
Edmonton Oilers 54 5 52 8 -1
New York Islanders 45 4 46 5 -2
Phoenix Coyotes 34 6 36 6 -2
Buffalo Sabres 44 5 47 7 -5
Chicago Blackhawks 42 7 51 3 -5
Colorado Avalanche 41 5 47 4 -5
Ottawa Senators 49 9 57 7 -6
Anaheim Ducks 45 4 51 5 -7
Toronto Maple Leafs 49 5 55 6 -7
Detroit Red Wings 48 2 50 11 -11
Minnesota Wild 39 5 51 4 -11
Washington Capitals 41 3 49 10 -15
Columbus Blue Jackets 49 7 64 8 -16
Dallas Stars 33 5 52 3 -17
Winnipeg Jets 45 3 58 8 -18
Tampa Bay Lightning 41 2 59 12 -28

So here's to hoping that the special teams keep on being special, and Pekka Rinne keeps things under control as the team gets out-shot during even strength play.

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