For the second straight postseason, the Predators are up 2-0 on an opponent. Let’s ignore what happened last year for a moment and enjoy a 2-0 series lead on Chicago for the first time ever.
In fact, the Blackhawks have never trailed 0-2 in a series when they’ve had home ice advantage in the Joel Quenneville era. This is uncharted territory for Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and company.
For the Predators, tomorrow’s Game 3 is a golden opportunity to deliver a crushing blow to the Hawks postseason hopes while also putting the Preds one step closer to the Western Conference Semifinals.
But how did they do it?
Pekka Rinne is delivering his best
Undoubtedly, this has been the best two game stretch for Pekka Rinne in his playoff career. Getting his 2nd and 3rd career playoff shutouts is one thing. To get both in back-to-back games in the United Center over the top seeded Blackhawks? That’s unreal.
Lateral movements are one of Rinne’s weak points, but he certainly had no problems last night. Rinne was tracking the puck and moving from side-to-side like a champ. The Hawks were attacking from all angles at 5v5, but Rinne stopped everything.
That’s a pretty balanced attack from the Blackhawks. They may have favored his blocker side, but for the most part they were trying to get pucks on net from every angle possible. Their cross ice passing was limited by the Preds defensive strategy (more on this later), but take nothing away from Rinne. He looked great.
Which brings me to my next point.
Rinne has looked extremely calm and confident for the entirety of these first two games. Confidence does a lot for a goalie, and Pekka has a lot of it right now.
It’s important to remember that Rinne had the worst season of his career in 2015-16 and then followed it up with an inconsistent season this year. His confidence probably took a hit over the last two years. After the game Saturday, Rinne commented on how he got that confidence back.
“Just playing a lot of games. Obviously, having the trust from my teammates and coaching staff,” Rinne said in his post-game comments. “The only way you’re going to get it back is through hard work on the ice, you know, you work hard and eventually it’s gonna come back. You just believe in yourself.”
He really looks like he believes in himself right now, and that his teammates do as well.
After all, he is not alone out there. Another big part of the Preds first two wins are the 41 blocked shots by his teammates. That’s potentially 41 saves he didn’t have to make.
“As a team we defend so well... they boxed out, let me see the puck” Rinne said of his teammates. “There wasn’t probably one puck where I didn’t see it. Guys have been doing a really good job in front of me.”
As Preds fans, we are all Pekka Rinne fans. We know he hasn’t had the best couple of seasons, which is why it’s so satisfying to see Rinne play well in net and have such success in these first two playoff games.
Keep clogging the middle
The Preds have been doing an excellent job of frustrating the Blackhawks’ attack. They’ve been doing it by clogging up the middle of the ice, pressuring the puck carrier at the point of entry, which forces the dump-in, and then battling hard for the puck on the boards.
The Preds have also implemented a defense-first approach to the game that must be incredibly tough to play against. Forecheckers are constantly in the face of the Hawks’ defenders and the blue-liners are pushing around the Hawks’ forwards like tackle sleds.
Who is the coach for the Preds again?
This is exactly the type of strategy that can stymie an attack like the Blackhawks. The Hawks love to carry the puck in with speed, change the angle of attack on the fly, and use their skill and puck carrying ability to get quality shots. It’s tough to do any of that when A) you don’t have the puck anymore, because someone stole it from you, B) you have no one to pass to, because the passing lanes are all clogged, C) you have no angles to shoot from because a number of Norris-caliber defenders and Pekka Prime are in your way.
Here’s a couple examples.
Early in the 1st period, Panarin has the puck in the corner and looks to make a cross ice pass to a streaking Seabrook.
It’s pretty much his only option. He can’t shoot, there are Preds covering his other options in the slot area, and Ryan Ellis is about to eat his lunch. The pass fails and it turns into a scoring opportunity for Smith and Sissons going the other way.
Here’s another. A little bit later, Vincent Hinostroza has the puck in almost the same area.
Instead of the cross ice pass, he elects to shoot. He fails. It deflects in on net, but Rinne’s pads were in perfect position.
Ok, one more. This one’s from later in the game. Panarin has the puck, again, in same area. What do you think he elects to do here?
If you guessed cross-ice pass to Kane, you are correct. He finds Kane far in the opposite corner, who sends the puck immediately to Toews in front. This was one of the more dangerous chances the Hawks had in the game, but Rinne stopped Toews on the doorstep.
Same setup, same defensive pressure, same result, only this time it was Rinne who stopped the Hawks. Kane, Panarin, and Toews are skilled enough to beat this defensive setup, no matter how effective it has been, which is why Rinne’s play has been so crucial.
Some Hawks fans call it “boring” and “slow,” but if it works, why the hell change it?
The more the merrier!
On Saturday, four Predators got their first career playoff goals: Harry Zolnierczyk, Colton Sissons, Kevin Fiala, and Ryan Ellis. That kind of balance is what the Preds have been waiting for all season. In Game 2, we finally saw it.
You need to have four balanced lines in the playoffs. You can’t rely on only one or two lines to score—all four lines need to be able to generate offense while playing responsible defense.
It has been frustrating for the last month or so watching this Preds team roll out a dismal 4th line every night, knowing that guys like Cody McLeod and Vernon Fiddler are a couple of the worst puck possession players to ever play for the Preds. Somehow it didn’t prevent them from making the playoffs, though it certainly could have.
But I don’t just want to lay blame on those two. Craig Smith has had a bad season. Kevin Fiala has been recalled and sent back down multiple times (for whatever reason). There have been injuries to work around and poor performances to deal with. For the most part, the only productive line all season has been the JOFA line.
Until Saturday night. Smith looked great on the 4th line with Sissons, and they eventually combined for a goal. Fiala scored a neat goal. Even Harry Z, who has more speed and skill than he gets credit for, scored a goal.
It’s great to see production from all four forward lines. The Preds will need more of that Monday night.