The Predators will go into St. Louis on Wednesday aiming to take out the Blues on their home ice. If they do that, no doubt it will be because they were able to tame a group of rather pesky and skillful forwards who can score, pass, check, and skate.
But first, a look at how the Blues operate their forward lines.
Mr. Potato Head
The Blues have an oddly effective mix-n-match Mr. Potato Head-style of forward deployment that is pretty rare in the NHL these days. Unlike the Preds and the JOFA line and the Blackhawks with the Kane-Panarin-Anisimov line, the Blues have gone almost the entire season without one single dominant line emerging as the top group. It led them to scoring the 12th most goals in the league at 2.84 per game, just behind Nashville and Chicago, but still quite effective.
Compare, for example, the minutes played by the forward line combinations on the Blues with some of the top line combinations in the rest of the Central (courtesy of datarink.com)
That’s nine different line combinations with at least 100 5v5 minutes this year. The Preds had eight lines with that many minutes, though two of those lines included Mike Ribeiro, so they really have more like six. Dallas, Chicago, and Minnesota all had only six line combinations with at least 100 5v5 minutes. In the East, Pittsburgh also had only six, while New York (R) and Columbus had only five.
The Blues forwards are a very balanced group and they’ve used that to their advantage in the second half of the season.
Even in the playoffs against the Wild, the forward combinations were jumbled yet again. Most notably, the Blues added former KHLer Vladimir Sobotka to the lineup to give a puck-possession boost to any line that needed it. He had 3 points in the opening round and played great. Ivan Barbashev, who played only a handful of minutes with Tarasenko and Schwartz in the regular season, played on the top line in four of the five games against the Wild.
Then there’s Game 5 hero Magnus “Umlaut” Pääjärvi, who found himself scoring the game winner while on a line with Sobotka and Lehtera. Pääjärvi skated 38 minutes with Lehtera in the regular season and zero with Sobotka.
Again, the key to this is that their cupboard of forwards is stocked with quality skaters, good shooters, and tons of physical net presence. New coach Mike Yeo has done a good job shuffling the lines appropriately, mixing weaknesses with strengths, and always allowing chemistry to grow organically within a game.
The Blues have balance, versatility, and skill on every line. That’s gonna be difficult for the Predators to stop.
The Most Dangerous Pair
Having said all of that, the most dangerous pair for the Preds to worry about is definitely Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko.
Not only have these two combined for 130 of the Blues’ 627 points (21% of the offense), they’ve also consistently been among the team’s leading puck possession duos.
They combined for a 55.2% Corsi-For percentage in over 550 minutes in the regular season. Much of that is the deadliness of Tarasenko—when he’s on the ice, teams have a tendency to drop back, knowing that one of the most lethal shots in the NHL is on the ice.
But really it’s not just that Tarasenko is a hell of a shooter, it’s also that Schwartz is a hell of a playmaker. Schwartz can puck handle with speed, pass incredibly well, and then, with defenders draped all over him, find Tarasenko when he’s open. Which usually leads to a goal.
For example, look at this craziness against the Wild back in March:
Schwartz somehow finds Tarasenko behind him and deals him a perfect pass to set up the goal. Unbelievable, really.
These two just tend to find each other in the offensive end of the ice. They’ve combined to score 58 goals this season, then went and combined for eight points in the opening series against the Wild.
If the Preds want to beat the Blues in this series, they must contain Tarasenko and Schwartz much like they contained Kane and Panarin in the first round.
While the Blues top 9 has been shuffled around like playing cards this season, the bottom line has been somewhat consistent.
That’s Ryan Reaves, Kyle Brodziak, and Scottie Upshall forming the bottom line, which should be what we see on Wednesday (they skated together throughout the entire series against the Wild).
What do they bring? Pretty much exactly what you would expect from a 4th line. They can manage to get the puck out of their own zone, not play terribly in the neutral zone, and then get the offensive zone whistle when they can.
You know, what a 4th line is supposed to do. They aren’t relied on to score or play incredible defense, they just have to not suck. Like, you know how some 4th lines suck? Well this 4th line doesn’t do that.
Here, look at this comparison I made with datarink.com using two completely random 4th lines from random NHL teams chosen randomly.
Oh wow, look at that. A 4th line that doesn’t suck!
The Matchup: Disrupt The Flow
The Preds will have to find a way to get the Blues off their game where they can. The Blues like to play a more defensive game and then hit counter attacks with speed. The Preds played similarly against the Blackhawks in Games 1 and 3 and made it work, but now they have to play against it.
If the Preds top line can continue playing mind-numbingly good hockey in the offensive zone, the Blues forwards won’t be able to break out of the zone with ease. Keep the same pressure on the Blues that we saw against the Hawks.
At the other end of the ice, I like the matchup of the Preds defensemen against the Blues forwards from a skill standpoint, they will just have to make sure to play disciplined hockey against a group that will want to get under their skin. This means staying back, reacting quickly, and then getting the puck out of the zone as quickly as possible. They can’t allow the Blues to have sustained pressure in the offensive zone—they love to cycle the puck and look for small weaknesses to exploit.
Also, blocked shots will again be key. The Preds must be able to block shots the same way they did against Chicago. The less work Rinne has to do the better.
If the Preds do all of that, they can win the series.