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An Offensive Engine Built With Defensive Parts

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The Predators are rolling through the Western Conference using a deadly combination of defense and offense.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Chicago Blackhawks at Nashville Predators Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The Predators are a high speed, up tempo, offense first hockey team, with their eyes locked in on the opposing goalie and their hearts set on dismantling the scoreboard, goal by goal.

Except, uhh, no they aren’t.

At least not in the playoffs.

While the narrative behind a Peter Laviolette coached team is often that of a high paced goal scoring frenzy, this has been far from the product we’ve seen on the ice in these playoffs. They have been fine on offense (2.8 goals per game, 6th among playoff teams), but the key to their success has been their defense. Along with the exceptional play of Pekka Rinne, the Predators have been a defense first, counter attacking team that has used a quick transition game to generate offense.

Through 10 games of the playoffs, the Predators rank 4th among all playoff teams in shot attempts allowed per sixty minutes. They allow just under 55 shot attempts per hour, all the while generating about the same amount at the other end. By comparison, the ultra defensive minded Kings and Bruins (mostly under Julien) allowed right at 50 shot attempts per game in the regular season.

In the Chicago series, the Preds did this with an extremely effective 1-4 neutral zone trap that forced puck carriers to either dump-in or turn the puck over in the neutral zone (the Blackhawks did both frequently). In the St. Louis series, the Preds didn’t change much tactically, but they did have to adjust to a larger much more physical opponent that liked to throw its weight around. It took some adjustment, but it worked a charm in the end. After all, a team that has very little skill to go around isn’t going to find that skill by dumping and chasing.

But the neutral zone is only half the battle. Eventually the puck will find its way into the defensive zone and the tough sledding begins. Keeping guys like Patrick Kane, Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz, and Paul Stastny out of the middle of the ice is hard work.

You aren’t going to win all of those high danger battles. You only have to win most of them, which the Preds have done so far. They rank 2nd among playoff teams in high danger shot attempts allowed per hour, behind only the Minnesota Wild (pour one out).

And when it comes to shots on goal, the Preds are among the best in the playoffs at limiting what Rinne has to deal with. They rank 3rd in shots allowed per game, 1st among teams still in the playoffs.

When you have such a solid defensive structure, things open up for your offense. This works especially well for a team like Nashville that has such great speed and counter attacking ability.

This is how the Preds have been able to advance this far in the playoffs. They’ve turned great defense into quick offense.

I went back and watched every even strength goal (except for empty netters), looking at who scored these goals and how. I counted the number of seconds the Preds spent in the offensive zone before scoring the goal, starting with the moment they had possession of the puck in the zone. I also counted odd man rushes.

Not counting “The Shift” the Preds spent an average of 5.4 seconds in the offensive zone before scoring these goals. In hockey terms, that is extremely fast. Not only that, four of these goals came off odd man rushes while only one (Josi’s goal assisted by Ellis) came as a direct result of an offensive zone start.

Those three examples of goals scored over 10 seconds? Outliers. The Ellis-Forsberg combo came after the expiration of a power play. The Josi-Ekholm combo was the result of some incredible skill by Joey to extend play in the zone. The 81 second behemoth was just pure filth.

Almost all of these goals were a direct result of counter attacks and quick transitions. The Preds have excelled at jumping into the offensive zone before the opposing defense has a chance to establish a structure and then capitalizing. And look at who is scoring these goals: Arvidsson, Forsberg, Josi, Ellis, Subban, Harry Z... sure you’ve got a McLeod and a Fiddler in there, but for the most part that is PURE SPEED.

Think about how fast 5.4 seconds is. Watch a hockey game and pay attention to how fast the seconds tick by when the puck is live. It’s the blink of an eye, really. The Preds are getting in the zone and pouncing before the defense knows what hit them.

Add to that the fact that eight of those 20 goals have been scored by defensemen. In mere seconds, the Preds blue-line goes from playing lights out defense to lights out (or on) offense.

Most teams with even a fraction of skill on their roster would love to push the pace of the game until medical oxygen needs to be wheeled in for the opposing team. Spend all your time in the offensive zone, shoot a bajillion pucks on net, and let your goalie relax for most of the game. Who needs defense when you’ve got offense?

The Preds have taken that a step further. Who needs offense when your defense is good enough to make offense?