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The Little Things: Fourth Line, Bottom Pair Step Up In Cali

As Peter Laviolette mixed up the forward lines last week, the fourth line used their experience to benefit the Preds. That and more in this week’s column!

NHL: Nashville Predators at Anaheim Ducks Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

It was a busy week for the Nashville Predators - a blockbuster trade, Pekka Rinne turned 35 and the Preds surprisingly won an overtime game.

Here are 10 things which stood out to me as the Preds grabbed two victories on the California road trip.

Fourth line stepped up

Prior to Friday’s game in Anaheim, head coach Peter Laviolette did his best Vince McMahon impression and declared, “It’s time to shake things up around here!”

The Predators managed just one goal against the Sharks, coming immediately after a face-off as Roman Josi pulled off a highlight reel backhand. It was time to mix up Nashville’s forward lines, and Laviolette virtually started from scratch.

He came up with:

Hartnell-Johansen-Arvidsson

Forsberg-Sissons-Smith

Fiala-Jarnkrok-Aberg

McLeod-Gaudreau-Watson

Among the top three lines, the most one had played alongside each other at 5-on-5 was Ryan Johansen’s at two minutes and 17 seconds. The Sissons line had been together for just 53 seconds this season; Calle Jarnkrok and company for only 48 seconds. It was truly a shakeup.

This made the fourth line of Cody McLeod, Frederick Gaudreau and Austin Watson easily the most experienced. And from a goal-scoring perspective, were also the most productive line of the night.

Although none of them found the back of the net, Gaudreau and Watson were on the ice for two goals (snipes by Josi and Matt Irwin) while McLeod was on for the latter tally.

But it’s more than just being on the ice.

Gaudreau picked up an assist on both scores, and was electric all night. Freddy G owned the second-highest Expected Goals For Percentage at 54.79% - one of only five players who gave the Predators a greater than 50% percent chance to score while on ice at 5-on-5.

Watson didn’t provide a helper on the evening, but turned in another solid two-way performance. Late in the game with the Ducks threatening with a 6-on-5 empty net chance, AW made one of the patented diving blocks (Gaudreau also played sturdy defense in the sequence, too). Although it’s not his game, Watson also created some offense against the Ducks:

Why yes, that’s a McLeod highlight. I’m just as surprised as you are.

McLeod actually produced a good showing by his standards. I’m not sure if that’s a compliment or not, but anyways. If you notice his tip-in attempt above, he nearly executes it against two of Anaheim top players, considering their multiple injuries - Sami Vatanen and Rickard Rakell.

McLeod finished with a season-high 8:39 5-on-5 TOI and didn’t fight anyone. So that’s good.

Weber has been steady

Before Yannick Weber’s touchdown “pass” to Miikka Salomaki on Friday, we’d barely mentioned the Swiss defenseman this season.

It’s fair. With a fully healthy squad, Weber would be the odd man out seventh d-man, assuming the Preds keep Alexei Emelin around once Ryan Ellis returns. But that’s another story.

Aside from the opener in Boston, I can’t recall a game where Weber has played blatantly poor. His Corsi For/Against numbers are virtually even, hovering around the 45% mark. Weber certainly isn’t an offensive-minded player such as Samuel Girard, but we’re starting to see signs of Weber improving in that area. He has two points already after earning just eight all of last season.

Weber gains good position on Hampus Lindholm, and despite the likelihood this chance is converted is extremely low, it’s still promising to see the Preds becoming more creative behind the red line.

With Weber on the ice at 5-on-5, Anaheim’s top forwards Corey Perry and Rakell managed just a 20% Corsi For Percentage and zero scoring chances in nearly three minutes. In fact, the group shifting with Weber actually created four opportunities against the duo.

Nice poke check here by Webs on the penalty kill to help keep Anaheim out of Nashville’s zone.

Irwin finding his groove

Matt Irwin potted his first goal since Nov. 5, 2016 on Friday, a laser from the left point. Flashback to last November and you’ll find that Irwin netted a goal in three-straight contests.

Against the Ducks, Irwin led all Preds defensemen in 5-on-5 adjusted Corsi (56.19%), with four of the eight scoring chances generated with him on the ice being considered high danger.

Irwin and Weber have made for a reliable defensive unit this season, clearly carrying over the experience gained from 2016-17 where they totaled a 48% 5-on-5 Corsi Percentage - a respectable number for a bottom pairing.

This season, they have been on the ice for three goals at 5-on-5 (the other coming vs. Philadelphia), and that’s in only 55 minutes of ice time. By comparison, P.K. Subban-Emelin own four goals for in 159.2 TOI.

We’ll occasionally see Anthony Bitetto in the starting lineup, but Irwin and Weber will continue to lock down the final defensive spot now with Girard out of the picture.

Second PP line delivers

Against the Ducks, Nashville held a 3-1 lead when the Preds went on the power play, but rather than sending out Johansen’s top unit, Laviolette trotted out the second group of Sissons, Kevin Fiala, Craig Smith, Mattias Ekholm and Viktor Arvidsson as the left point man.

Maybe with a two goal lead the head coach wanted to give the second unit first cracks, but it’s still rare not seeing Johansen, Filip Forsberg and Josi leave the bench.

In fact, Sissons’ line actually led the Predators with three minutes of power play time. On the previously mentioned PP, all five players contributed to Arvidsson’s goal. Fiala, Smith and Ekholm exchanged quick passes before setting up Arvi at his position, and Sissons provided the traffic in front of John Gibson:

Back checking

This continues to be a strength of Laviolette’s team. Known as one of the fastest teams in the NHL, Predators forwards continue to do an excellent job of helping their defense mates in transition.

Here you have Smith hustling back on what appeared to be a dangerous 2-on-1 heading straight toward Emelin. Now watch the next clip featuring Gaudreau:

I made sure to get the entire sequence of events to further emphasis Freddy’s handy work. Initially, he’s on the rush to center the puck at the top of the crease, then he takes a hit by Kurtis MacDermid before going off the screen.

Suddenly, you see him enter the picture just as LA sets up a 3-on-2 opportunity, with Gaudreau extending his stick to break up a pass. The Kings were really pressing Nashville at this point, so him silencing their momentum for the time being was key.

Donskoi fakes out Emelin

I’m really not trying to beat a dead horse here, but...

Emelin continues to make noticeable defensive errors, as evidenced by this play in San Jose where Joonas Donskoi split he and Subban.

Emelin played just 10:28 at 5-on-5 vs. the Sharks, then logged heavy minutes in the remaining two games of the trip. Anaheim was another stinker for the Russian - 36.36% Corsi For Percentage with 15 scoring chances against at even strength. Emelin then received a season-high 21:30 TOI vs. Los Angeles, and didn’t appear to play bad when on first watch (finishing with a +2), but still was on the surface for 10 scoring chances (five high danger).

The latter game shows the Preds took their foot off the gas (or turtle emoji) as Emelin led Nashville in 5-on-5 TOI vs. LA - way above his average. Rather than using Ekholm or Josi with a three goal lead, Laviolette utilized Emelin and Subban more.

Defending the Kings

When re-watching the Kings game, I wanted to learn why the Predators let a 3-0 lead slip away. I already knew the answer, though, and it was the same as every game Juuse Saros starts.

Of the 10 goals Saros has allowed at 5-on-5, seven have occurred in or near the crease. And you see the amount of unblocked shot attempts the young goalie has seen directly in front of him. It’s staggering.

In the Los Angeles matchup, the Kings swarmed Saros with shots from point-blank, and it was only a matter of time before they broke the seal. I, for one, was impressed that Saros kept the Kings off the scoreboard for as long as he did.

Here’s one example of a defensive relapse by the Preds. Of course, Emelin is involved. First, he’s slow to react as Nick Shore darts towards the blue ice. On the ensuing chance, he and Scott Hartnell completely whiff on communication as Macdermid circles around the end boards with ease.

Where you going, Fil?

It was an up and down week for Filip Forsberg.

The highlight was easily the Los Angeles trip where Forsberg tallied an assist on Craig Smith’s goal, and the duo along with Sissons were the most productive line throughout much of the night.

But in San Jose, Fil posted an expected goals for of just 12.22%, with his adjusted percentage even lower at 9.78%.

The middle game was in Anaheim where Forsberg helped generate offense, but it was this defensive mishap which caught my eye on the Ducks’ first goal.

First, Forsberg fails to clear the puck after his unit was stuck in the defensive zone for quite some time, with Ondrej Kase getting his hand on it. After the giveaway, keep your eyes on Fil. Rather than sticking with Kase, he chooses to target the blue line where an Anaheim player is moving forward (although he’s unseen on this video). This leaves Kase wide open. Subban has no chance of covering both men, and Sissons can’t get there in time to bail him out.

Subban’s outlet

How many times have you seen P.K. Subban flip the puck up, whether on the penalty kill or even strength? Too many to count, I know.

But what Subban did vs. Anaheim was remarkable.

This is at a man disadvantage, so first Subban takes his time and kills off a few seconds before firing a clearing pass off the glass.

How this got to Jarnkrok remains a mystery.

One last Girard highlight

Sam Girard will be missed. No more looking at Twitter on gamedays to see if he’ll be in the lineup, which became a tradition this season.

Fortunately, I was there in Smashville when Girard scored his first goal against Dallas. You could see the talent instantly. Colorado is getting an offensive-minded defenseman with a great left-handed shot and heads up intangibles you can’t teach.

That spin move and vision to spot Gaudreau...amazing.

All numbers courtesy of Natural Stat Trick and Corsica.