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Here’s What Worked: Division wins make us happy

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The Preds are firmly back in contention in the Central Division after some dominant recent performances. Ryan Johansen, the Subban-Ekholm pairing, and Pekka Rinne are a few reasons why.

NHL: Dallas Stars at Nashville Predators Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Yay offense!

After dispatching the Tampa Bay Lightning last Monday night, the Nashville Predators put up five goals a game in three of their next four wins, all against divisional opponents. They beat Dallas Stars 5-2 last Wednesday, the Winnipeg Jets 5-1 last Friday, and then the Colorado Avalanche 5-3 last night.

With this offensive explosion (Sunday’s snoozer against Winnipeg notwithstanding—we will just skip that game for now) came some overall dominating performances, so let’s take a look at what worked in those wins. We’ll keep this analysis succinct; when you beat your opponents by a combined score of 15-6 you are doing a lot of things well, so we will focus on just a few key strong points.

The Top Line Forwards, Especially Joey, Are Killing It

In these three wins, the top line forwards, Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson, and James Neal have been causing havoc in the offensive zone, putting up goals, threatening opposing defenses, and limiting the opposition’s attack. Here’s a quick rundown of those four guys over the course of these wins:

  • Ryan Johansen: 4 goals, 3 assists, 9 shots, 48 shot attempts for, 26 shot attempts against (64.8%)
  • Filip Forsberg: 1 goal, 2 assists, 10 shots, 42 shot attempts for, 32 shot attempts against (56.7%)
  • James Neal (only 2 games): 2 goals, 1 assist, 5 shots, 29 shot attempts for, 16 shot attempts against (64.4%)
  • Viktor Arvidsson: 1 goal, 2 assists, 5 shots, 50 shot attempts for, 27 shot attempts against (64.9%)

Here’s another look at it, this time using HockeyViz’s 5v5 shot attempts chart. I like this visual because it’s easy to see who is controlling play and who is struggling for both teams. First the Dallas game:

And then the Colorado game:

The Winnipeg game shows less obvious results, but the idea is still the same: the top line is generating a large amount of shot attempts while at the same time suppressing shot attempts at the other end. The term “possession” gets thrown around a lot when it comes to shot attempts, which is a bit of a mis-characterization of what’s actually happening, so it’s best to think about what these numbers actually tell you. More shot attempts at one end, less at the other.

The real key here is Ryan Johansen. He’s playing some great hockey and is now tied for the team lead in points with 16. His strength lies in playmaking—whether he’s got Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson, or James Neal at his side, offense happens when Joey is passing pucks and running the offense. Plus, with five goals now, he’s still only shooting 9.6%, which is below his career average. You have to like the idea that his goal output could still see some improvement.

Speaking of which, here’s Joey’s sick golazo from last night’s win over the Avalanche:

Das crazy.

Without a doubt, the goal of the year for the Preds so far.

Subban and Ekholm: Friends Forever

You may have noticed in the visual above that P.K. Subban and Mattias Ekholm are also in the “good” areas of the chart. Much like the top line forwards, those two have been playing lights out.

For whatever reason, the Subban/Josi pairing that we were all dreaming about over the summer didn’t quite work out the way we thought. I’m not saying the coaching staff won’t attempt to pair those two together at some point in the future, but the early returns weren’t great. In just over 78 minutes together, the two combined for a 48.6% shot attempt percentage at 5 on 5, meaning they were allowing more shot attempts than they were generating. Not ideal. And they really weren’t doing enough offensively to counter balance the risks they were taking.

Since Subban has been paired with Ekholm, he’s seen a 6 point bump in his shot attempt percentage ratio. In over 288 minutes together, Subban and Ekholm combine for a 54.6% shot attempt percentage, which is excellent for a defensive pair.

In these wins in particular, Subban and Ekholm have been a big part of shutting down some excellent opposing top line forwards... guys like Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Matt Duchene, and Mark Scheifele. Ekholm and Subban helped limit those four guys to exactly one point combined (Duchene got an assist on Mikhail Grigorenko’s goal last night). That’s real good.

Rinne Doing Rinne Things

Pekka Rinne stopped 92 of 98 shots faced in these three wins, for a save percentage of 93.9%. That’s also really good. The offense has been great, but the Predators don’t win these games without Rinne’s play in net.

Case in point, the Stars game. Take a look at the unblocked shot locations at even strength, once again courtesy of HockeyViz:

Point blank tries from Patrick Sharp? Rinne’s got it. Tyler Seguin shots from the slot? No problem. Jamie Benn? Patrick Eaves? Jason Spezza? Covered.

While I don’t love the amount of dangerous shots the Preds forced Rinne to make, you love the fact that he stopped them anyway. This is what good goaltenders do: they cover for any defensive mistakes and keep every game within reach.

Rinne just seems so much more comfortable in net than in recent years. He’s decisive and confident and it shows in his performance. He’s also becoming more comfortable using all of his equipment to help stop pucks, not just his glove. He has always had a stellar glove, one of the best in the league in fact, but its how he’s using his blocker, his pads, and his stick that have made the difference. You can’t be a one-trick pony in this league and Rinne is proving that he isn’t one.