Despite the Blues playing one of their best games of the series last night, the Preds emerged victorious in Game Four, winning the game 2-1 on goals by James Neal and Ryan Ellis. It was an extremely close hockey game, with the result riding on mere inches—Ellis saving the puck on the goal line, Neal flinging the puck just beyond Allen’s reach—but the Preds would not be denied their 3rd win of the series.
This was not an easy win. Like I said, the Blues played well. Well enough to win probably. Early on, it looked like their pace and strength were going to force an early goal or two and force the Preds to come from behind. And with Jake Allen stopping everything early on, that would have been tough.
But the Preds have Pekka Rinne. And the best blue-line in the league. So yeah, that didn’t happen.
Annnnd Boom Goes The Dynamite
Look, I’ll be honest: hits are one of those stats that make me cringe when they come up in an assessment of a team’s play. Like face-off stats, they tend to provide surface level analysis only and usually have very little effect on game score.
No, I don’t have any real statistical analysis to support this, but the logic is clear: when you hit more than your opponent, that means you don’t have the puck. If they have the puck more, they are probably doing things with it, like scoring.
With the Blues in town, you do what you need to survive.
Austin Watson had eight freaking hits last night. Eight. And I’m sure you can remember most of them. They made a lot of noise. Like for example, this one on Magnus Paajarvi:
That was just one of them. There were seven others, very similar to that. And while Watson did finish the night -6 in shot attempt differential, you have to think that his presence meant something. He mostly played against the Steen line and the Berglund line and neither line scored.
No one for Nashville is having more fun playing this style than Austin Watson.— Dan D Bradley (@DanDBradley) May 3, 2017
The 4th line also brought the pain. Miikka Salomaki and Cody McLeod both had five hits each, playing mostly against the Blues’ 4th line with Ryan Reaves and Jori Lehtera. Reaves finished the night with four PIMs, including the ones that led to the Ellis goal.
Final hit count of the night—Nashville: 31, Blues: 33. So, for the second consecutive game, there were 60+ hits in the game. It was very noisy.
The physical nature of this series boiled over last night and the Preds were able to distill a win out of the whole mess.
Both Goalies Were Great; Pekka Was Better
Jake Allen was a beast last night. He stopped pucks that should never be stopped. That skate save on Neal? Unreal.
It really felt like Allen was going to steal the game for the Blues, until Ellis’ power play goal. Then when James Neal’s softy snuck by Allen’s shoulder, you knew Pekka had won the goalie battle.
Rinne stopped 32 of 33 shots, including seven while on the penalty kill. So many of them were quality stops. Early on, he made this top notch save on one of the best shooters in the game:
Then he did it again a few seconds later:
Rinne did a great job of cutting down angles early, not giving the Blues any corners to shoot at. He also controlled his rebounds well, something he sometimes struggles with.
Rinne did get a little help from backup goaltender Ryan Ellis late in the 2nd period when the Blues were scrambling in front. Somehow the puck stayed out, mostly thanks to Ellis’ left knee.
What an amazing image.
Credit Allen for being on his game for most of the night, but Rinne was just better.
The Heel Lives
James Neal emerges from the woods, steals the puck, and snaps home the game winner. All while wearing a big, goofy grin on his face. Because that’s what he does.
Let’s take a look at this madness. First, Neal’s pressure forces a turnover.
But it isn’t. Neal pokes the puck at the right time and wins the turnover. Neal does this a lot. He doesn’t have the speed of Arvy, but he forechecks well. Always an active stick, that James Neal.
This was so smart. Neal always makes smart plays in the offensive zone. He knows he has no one coming up behind him, so he needs time and space. He creates that with a simple chip to the left of Carl Gunnarsson.
Then, things get magical.
Neal has no business scoring here. He has virtually no angle to shoot from, pressure is arriving in full force, and reinforcements are nowhere to be found.
Since the only thing Neal can do here is shoot, that’s what he does.
Actually, watch the goal in full replay and you can see how he did this. He springs the puck around Gunnarsson’s outstretched leg using a snap-shot—a type of shot that can be hard for goalies to pick up, because of the timing—which completely caught Allen by surprise. Allen had the angles covered, but he was probably expecting a low shot along the ice or something glove side.
Oh and by the way, Neal finished +15 in shot attempt differential (75.9%), +10 in scoring chance differential (77.8%), and +2 in high danger chance differential (66.7%).
He really did a lot more last night than just score the game winner. In fact, Neal has been all over the place in these playoffs, even if he hasn’t been scoring goals. Through eight games, Neal has 22 shots on goal (4th on the team) and a 54.0% even strength Corsi-For percentage (6th on the team) to go with his three points.
Neal is also playing great defense. Last night he played mostly against Berglund’s line, holding them to just two shot attempts in a little over five minutes ice time. Neal’s partnership with Calle Jarnkrok and Colin Wilson has a lot to do with that—both Jarny and Willy are great defenders in their own right.
Neal has shown a motor in this playoffs that you have to like. He’s been everywhere, so it was great to see him get the game winner. He deserved it.
All stats via Natural Stat Trick