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Preventing Shots Key To Preds’ Playoff Run

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If defense wins championships, this is a good start.

St Louis Blues v Nashville Predators - Game Three Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

The Predators made yet another statement yesterday, responding to their first playoff loss of the season with a dominating 3-1 win at home over the Blues.

What might be most surprising is how they did it. With speedsters Kevin Fiala, Craig Smith, and Pontus Aberg out of the lineup, the Preds returned with a very similar lineup to Friday and match the Blues physicality.

Match it they did.

The Preds out-hit the Blues 34-30, out-chanced the Blues 41-35, out-shot the Blues 34-23, and, of course, out-scored the Blues 3-1. It was domination in every measure of the word, except for maybe the final goal count. Jake Allen made 31 saves and almost every one of them was a tough play.

The dominance culminated in the 3rd period, when Roman Josi scored the 3rd goal of the game following nearly two minutes of offensive zone possession by the Preds. The Blues looked absolutely gassed after multiple lines cycled the puck around the outside of the Blues’ zone, with guys like Austin Watson, Harry Zolnierczyk, Ryan Ellis, P.K. Subban, and Mike Fisher all making smart, smart passes to keep the cycle going. Colton Sissons finally found Josi at the top of the zone, who fired a shot by Allen that he never saw thanks to a screen by Zolnierczyk.

A moment of brilliance by the Preds was a nightmare for the Blues. Trying to chase the game isn’t easy when you are hemmed in your own zone. The Preds knew that. Playing Laviolette’s game to perfection, they kept the puck moving around the outside of the Blues defensive structure, forcing them to move their feet, knowing that at some point they would tire and a shot would open up.

If you’ve watched every Preds game this postseason, this shouldn’t be a surprise. Outside of a few shifts here and there, the Preds have been the dominant team in all seven games they’ve played so far.

The underlying numbers match what we are seeing on the ice. Through seven games, the Preds have 13 players that are skating at over 50% Corsi-For percentage—in other words, they have 13 skaters that are generating more shot attempts than they allow on average per game.

Where does that rank among remaining Western Conference teams in the playoffs? Pretty good.

Look at the Blues! Through eight playoff games, they have no players above 50% in shot attempt percentage. The closest is Carl Gunnarsson at 47.7%, which isn’t even really that close. They are really forcing Allen to win games for them, while hoping to capitalize on occasional mistakes by the other team. That strategy worked like a charm against the Wild, by the way.

What about in the East?

Well... hmm... yeah, about that.

The Penguins largely dominated the Blue Jackets and now have a 2-0 series lead over the Capitals despite the fact that Phil Kessel is their top possession player at 48.5%.

That’s the thing with shot attempt stats. They don’t predict with 100% accuracy (they never claimed to), so you can always find exceptions to the rule. But in the long run, it is always better to have the puck than not. Having the puck more usually means you will be shooting more than your opponent and that usually means you will score more than your opponent. The Red Wings built a dynasty, making the playoffs for 26 straight seasons and winning four Stanley Cups, knowing that possessing the puck is the most important thing to winning.

Having said that, there is one key difference between what the Preds have done through seven playoff games and what most other teams are doing when it comes to puck possession, including what the Capitals are doing against the Penguins.

Shot suppression.

The Preds rank 3rd in shots on goal allowed in the playoffs, with only 28.4 shots allowed per game, and they lead in that category among teams who are still in the hunt for the Cup.

But it’s more than that. The Preds are also denying those shots from even happening, at a rate better than anyone.

Among teams still in the playoffs, the Preds allow the least amount of shot attempts per sixty minutes than anyone. They’ve been stifling the opponent in the neutral zone, usually forcing a dump-in. Then, once the puck is in the defensive zone, they’ve been working hard to force skilled players off the puck and get the puck clear. No puck, no shots.

It’s been a joy to watch. For as much as people talk about offense with this team, the Preds have really been winning these games with solid defense.

So who’s doing it? Here’s a look at the top shot-suppressing players in this postseason (minimum 80 minutes TOI, courtesy of naturalstattrick.com):

Four in the top 10, including the top two. That’s pretty damn good. Subban and Ekholm have been dominating all over the ice. And look at Matt Irwin! What a pickup.

As we know, it’s also about the kinds of shots you allow. The Preds have been very good this year at preventing Rinne from having to stop high danger chances. That trend has continued into the postseason.

Here’s the top shot-suppressing players when it comes to preventing high danger chances:

First, the JOFA line is preventing high danger chances because, well, the puck is almost always nowhere near the Preds defensive zone when they are out there. They are busy playing like madmen in the offensive zone and creating scoring chances. The best defense is a good offense, and all that.

While the top line is doing what they do, the back-end is holding up nicely. Subban and Ekholm are clogging up the neutral zone—Subban with his offensive skills, Ekholm with his size—and suppressing shots when needed.

Meanwhile, Calle Jarnkrok is showing us all why he is here. He’s undoubtedly the best defensive forward on the team.

For all the talk of Laviolette’s system and what it does for the offense, it’s important to remember that the Predators’ defensive play has been carrying them all season. So far that trend has carried into the playoffs, leading them to an impressive first round sweep and now to a 2-1 series lead over the Blues.