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Quantifiable Swagger: Predators Thrive in the Third Period

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As our beloved hockey team passes the 40 game mark, we look at some pressing questions facing the guys in gold. This year's Nashville Predators are something that very few teams at 501 Broadway have ever been: Clutch.

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

On Friday night, the Predators were facing down a 3-2 deficit against a white-hot Capitals team. The team had a rough second period, and the third didn't start much better thanks to allowing a goal on the penalty kill. To make matters worse, Shea Weber looked to be in some discomfort after taking some shots and absorbing an impact on the boards in the offensive zone.

But instead of trying too hard and getting frustrated against a very good goaltender, which Braden Holtby is, they started to pressure again with less than half the period remaining. Seth Jones helped Carter Hutton diffuse a 3 on 1 rush, which seemed to ignite the team. From that point on, Nashville pressured the Capitals relentlessly and drew a penalty with less than five minutes remaining. And after Ekholm's goal thanks to some nifty overlapping by the Swede and Seth Jones, the team turned the heat up. And leave it to James Neal to pounce on a bad turnover and seal it. As your high school coach will tell you, anyone can play defense. It takes desire and positioning. In this case, it was the big trade acquisition known for blasting shots from the slot.

Charts and Trends

The Washington game is just another game in the trend Nashville has forged this year: owning the third period. The Predators are far and away the best team in the last period of the game in terms of goal differential. If you would like a nice chart to show this:

Preds3rdPeriod

Whether you belong to the church of fancy stats or not, there's plenty to like here. Nashville is 5th in the league in terms of even-strength Corsi differential in the third period. The four teams above them have all won the cup since 2008 (and still have most of their cores together).

The addition of James Neal, Mike Ribeiro, and the rise of Filip Forsberg have helped immensely. But give plenty of credit to Craig Smith, Colin Wilson and a defense that's becoming better and better. Again, the best days are ahead for the Nashville Predators. Also, Peter Laviolette is a master at line matching. There's a reason why Nashville is able to win an absurd percentage of their home games against teams with real offensive depth. Don't credit the fans, credit the team. You'd rather have a good team. Trust me. The Cleveland Browns have the best fans in the NFL, and they would agree with my statement.

But let's get some more charts going. I like pointing back to the 2011-12 season in terms of comparison. That was the apex of Trotz hockey being successful. I ran the same report for that season, and here are the teams' even strength performance in the third period, minus one key element.

1112

Nashville beat the best 3rd period team in the playoffs by owning the third period of that series. I feel better and better about that now.

All of these charts come from War-On-Ice, which is an incredible resource. You'll notice the size of the shape is by TOI, which is the default on these charts. I left it on there to make a point. Yes, it is indeed silly but intentional. There's one last element of the puzzle.

1112scoringchances

Scoring chances are defined as shots/rushes into key areas of the ice. The eventual champion Kings, and the best teams during the course of that regular season all turned up the heat on their opponents during the year. Nashville is barely on the map, largely due to the structure they played with for most of the year. Remember those games where St. Louis and Detroit were sieging Pekka Rinne's net like he was guarding the Alamo? I do. Also, Boston plowed through the Eastern Conference like it was damp Kansas soil for most of the season, then Joel Ward and the Caps happened. Bless you, Joel Ward. And hey look, it's Lavy's Flyers.

You'll also notice that teams that had good goal differential didn't have a ton of scoring chances. While Vancouver, Ottawa, and Dallas were able to score goals in the third, their chances weren't terribly high. Also, Nashville's ratio was terrible.

So where will a new system, new players, and new era of confidence put Nashville on this map?

Preds3rdPeriodwscoringchances

That's much better. In fact, it's the best in the league. Nashville has the highest goal differential in the third because they generate more scoring chances than their opposition. Going into Saturday's game with Detroit, Nashville is a +72 more chances than their opponents which is 10 more than anyone else (Tampa Bay is a +62). So for all the praise Nashville received that year for their defensive system and style, it's not as effective to this year's plan of keep the puck and pressing the opponent.

PDO

I really don't like this idea that PDO is a crutch to lean on when describing why a team is doing better or worse than expected. All shots are not the same, all goalies aren't the same, and all styles of play aren't the same. But, as my political science professor always said: "Use their argument to win the argument."

Nashville does have the highest even strength PDO. Cool. PDO is on-ice save percentage plus on-ice shooting percentage. That seems like a fair measure. But all shots are not the same. This is known. Nashville is a good possession team if you rely on Corsi and Fenwick stats. What's fun to look at is the PDO breakdown by period.

  • First Period: 6th in the league, measure of 102.0
  • Second Period: 10th in the league, measure of 100.9
  • Third Period: 1st in the league, measure of 107.3

Now how does that compare with their even strength scoring chances compared to the rest of the league?

  • First Period: Nashville is +64, 2nd in the league (Islanders lead with 85)
  • Second Period: Nashville is +18, 13th in the league (Lightning lead with 165)
  • Third Period: Nashville is +72, 1st in the league

In case you're wondering, the Isles have a first period PDO of 100.3 and the Bolts have a second period PDO of 99.3. The Lightning, Islanders, and Predators are the current leaders in even strength scoring chances +/- throughout the games. Both Tampa Bay and Brooklyn New York have a higher total Fenwick (unblocked shot attempts) +/- than Nashville, and it's not even close.

  • Islanders: Fenwick +307, 1st in the league, +122 in the first period (1st in the league, 2nd place is +93)
  • Lightning: Fenwick +292, 2nd in the league, +178 in the second period (1st in the league, 2nd place is +99)
  • Predators: Fenwick +129, 8th in the league, +61 in the third period (8th in the league, leader is +91)

Nashville is generating the goals even-strength, but not outshooting everyone in the league in the third. That does explain the PDO being high, but also having Mike Ribeiro as the top line center adds into this since he would rather be Magic Johnson on the ice than Karl Malone. He's all about that extra pass, and starts in the offensive zone usually. That will mean fewer shots normally, but one player isn't enough to skew the balance that much. So praise Pekka Rinne, and hope he heals well. Yes, things are going Nashville's way to start the year. But it's nothing to worry about in terms of becoming the new Colorado Avalanche. If the Predators get off more shots on net from angles they currently pass from, the hockey math people will be happy. I for one don't care, because that extra pass seems to be working thus far for Nashville and production is coming from multiple lines.

In closing, that extra jump in the step you noticed going into the third period? It's real. Good teams find a way to turn it on when the minutes draw to a close. The last few cup winners all do it, and still do it today. With the lineup and nucleus likely here in Nashville for a while, this is a trend than can hopefully grow from here.