It was a busy Thanksgiving week for the Predators, and as a result, this edition of ‘The Little Things’ comes a little later than normal with a four-game slate to dissect.
But alas, it’s here. Ten things which caught my attention in games vs. Winnipeg, Montreal, St. Louis and Carolina.
Aberg solid in return to Nashville
I’ve been openly critical of Pontus Aberg to start the season - a talented, young player who showed little motivation when fans had high hopes for him, and a demotion to Milwaukee occurred.
Aberg rejoined the team for the Winnipeg game, and while his number of starts will still be a bit limited moving forward, I thought Aberg was pretty solid throughout the week. Granted, this is using the eye test, whereas his numbers weren't as impressive, beginning with a 27.78 Corsi For Percentage at 5-on-5 vs. the Jets.
It was small things, though, where Aberg contributed to the team.
Nice forechecking by Aberg on the play above, then delivers a hit to keep the puck alive in the offensive zone before feeding a cross ice bank pass through traffic.
In St. Louis, it was much of the same. Nice play anticipation following the face-off, keeps the puck on his stick and tries for a near-post shot on Carter Hutton. We still want more from Aberg, but it’s promising to at least see Aberg helping in some form of fashion.
Emelin showing improvements
Speaking of players I’ve criticized, here’s Alexei Emelin.
But to be fair, the Russian had one of his better stretches of hockey beginning with the Montreal matchup. Emelin posted his best possession numbers since Oct. 17 (55.56% vs. MTL), then get this - racked up a 64.71 Expected Goals For Percentage against St. Louis which was second-highest on the squad. In addition, with Emelin on the ice, the Predators allowed just five scoring chances.
The expected goals for percentage numbers remained just above 50% at Carolina, which suggests Emelin is settling in from an offensive standpoint. He’s even leading rushes now:
Emelin also ignited the game-tying goal against the ‘Canes, shooting from the point which created a rebound for Craig Smith to make it 3-3.
While Emelin was certainly more of a liability than anything for the Preds early on, maybe this is the start of better things to come for the defenseman. He played over 18 minutes at 5-on-5 vs. Carolina and his on-ice unit generated 24 shots. Perhaps the fast-paced game was the greatest benefactor of that, but let’s leave it as a positive for Emelin.
Ekholm was outstanding
Willy and Mason discussed this on one of last week’s broadcast about Mattias Ekholm being the team’s most valuable player at this point in the season. I couldn’t agree more, even if he wasn’t scoring goals on a near nightly basis.
His outstanding defense was on display last week, and now has a team-high 14 takeaways at all strengths. Here’s two examples:
The first clip against the Blues is a similar play featured in the previous article where Ekholm shuts down the opposition from entering his own zone while on the penalty kill. More on that game later. Next against the Hurricanes, it’s a patented Ekholm poke check we’ve grown accustomed to seeing.
Just watch and appreciate Roman Josi at work.
Josi didn’t score last week, but obviously deserved to. Nonetheless, the Captain continues to generate a ton of shots (third-highest total among NHL defensemen at all all strength). Against Carolina, Josi played a role in 12 of the team’s 15 high danger scoring chances at even strength, and only once this season have the Preds totaled over 12 as a team prior to Sunday.
Holding STL to distance shots
The 2-0 shutout victory by Nashville over the Blues was no doubt the highlight of the week. The Predators got on the board early courtesy of Ryan Johansen, Pekka Rinne stood on his head and more importantly, the defense kept the pressure off their goalie.
The Preds allowed only four 5-on-5 high danger chances, the second lowest number of the season. How? Put simply, Nashville forced St. Louis to shoot from the point.
Look at how much coverage flirts with the blue line, and nothing directly in front of Rinne. The Preds owned the neutral zone last Friday, making a dangerous Blues team play dump and chase rather than flashing quick passing while entering the offensive zone. One example was the Ekholm highlight above where he shuts down Brayden Schenn.
Credit to Matt Irwin as well, who did a nice job of pinching oncoming forwards. There were two plays in a one minute span which were effective in keeping St. Louis at bay.
It’s subtle, but Irwin does the job - first by cutting off Scottie Upshall and making him play the puck deep, then he steps in the path of Kyle Brodziak to get the same result.
The anatomy of a shutout - limiting penalties (two vs. STL), owning the neutral zone and great goaltending. Nashville succeeded.
Saros put in tough spots...again
On the flip side, Nashville’s road trip to Carolina was quite the opposite.
Sixty-four shots allowed at 5-on-5 (32 of those on goal) and 32 scoring chances (15 high danger) is the not the equation you want. An impressive, high-octane Carolina team played to their strengths, and the Preds could not slow them down. It was a track meet, and Nashville was lucky to force a tie in the race.
Remember the map above? Now feast your eyes on this one:
Of course, the Preds struggled defensively with Juuse Saros in net, which continues to be the narrative. Too much pace to deal with, too many giveaways and an extreme amount of shots from within close was the story on Sunday.
Here’s that speed of the Hurricanes. This probably says more about Carolina, because when have we ever seen Viktor Arvidsson lose a footrace? But Jaccob Slavin beats him here, and it nearly costs the Preds at the conclusion of the first period.
And now for one of 10 giveaways...Anthony Bitetto is unable to escape pressure, and his clearing attempt was a poor one. P.K. Subban accounted for three giveaways of his own, which was also pretty ugly.
Saros deserves better.
More great forechecking
It seems like forechecking is a weekly topic, but the Preds continue to excel in one of their strength departments.
First by Calle Jarnkrok and Colton Sissons...
And then a hard-hitting shift by Austin Watson and company...
Much like the recent Colorado game, the Predators put themselves in a laborious spot against the Canadians facing a 5-on-3.
Led by Sissons, the Preds came up with five blocked shots throughout this penalty kill.
At the tail end of this clip, Ekholm comes up clutch to intercept as Montreal sets up for a 2-on-1 directly in front of Rinne.
Awareness on MTL goal
While the Preds did successfully kill off those penalties, the Canadians continued to press and scored the game's opening goal courtesy of a Jordie Benn wrister.
Nashville is stuck with four men on one side of the ice, leaving “the royal road” wide enough to drive a truck through. I’m going to use Chris Mason’s explanation of this as a better angle of the goal (nice job Mace!):
Brendan Gallagher does a nice job of holding up Subban and Emelin, so there’s no chance for the Preds to recover with both defensemen out of position. The Canadians player at the right point is the guy who makes this play happen, though. He fakes the pass to Benn, which freezes Smith as he’s in a choosing position. Smith gets his skates going towards Benn, but when the pass isn’t sent there immediately, he follows the puck. Ideally, you would’ve liked to see Johansen to call off Smith and take both Montreal players on the right side while Smith shifts over to stop Benn, but again, Nashville wasn’t in position to make that happen.
Misplay by Jarnkrok
Back to Winnipeg where the Predators were outmatched in the possession battle throughout the opening period. This was one a few promising chances for the Jets which caught my eye:
You see Ekholm point his stick towards Jacob Trouba, ushering him to man up while Ekholm prepares for a wraparound. It does appear Trouba is about to slide the puck around the boards, especially when Kyle Connor enters the trapezoid. But Jarnkrok takes a poor angle, and as a result, Trouba is free to drive the puck and find Connor for a backhand jam.