When the Pittsburgh Penguins became the Eastern Conference Champions and their meeting with the Nashville Predators in the Stanley Cup Finals was set, the big storyline was that the Finals would be a matchup of strength against strength and weakness against weakness. The Predators' injury-decimated offense was going to be going up against a similarly injury-decimated Penguins defense. Meanwhile, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel would try their luck against the best defense corps in the league.
During Thursday night's game, Ryan Ellis got tangled up with Penguins forward Carl Hagelin twice.
rough night for Ellis pic.twitter.com/j6JlMYTWtK— steph (@myregularface) June 9, 2017
The second collision, in front of the Nashville goal, left Ellis struggling to get off the ice. He did not return. Ellis's last shift of the game ended less than four minutes into the second period. In his absence, Laviolette was forced to rely more heavily on Matt Irwin, who played 19:46, and Yannick Weber, who played 15:24.
Irwin and Weber have been frustratingly ineffective against both of the Penguins' top two lines this series. Unfortunately, this isn't the kind of problem that the Predators can fix. Crosby and Malkin are the kind of players that even top-pairing defensemen struggle to contain, and Irwin and Weber are average third-pairing defensemen. As Predators fans, we've been spoiled by a few years of having five first-pairing defensemen. The drop-off in talent between the worst of the Predators' top four and the better of their bottom two is huge, and it makes Irwin and Weber look worse than they are.
If Ellis can't play on Sunday--or maybe even if he can--the Predators are in trouble. His injury has been described as "upper-body" and from the trainer's attention on the bench seems to have been to his midsection.
Upper body for Ryan Ellis. Don't know yet if he'll play the next game. #tvasports— Renaud Lavoie (@renlavoietva) June 9, 2017
In the best-case scenario, a core injury could interfere with his shooting and passing accuracy, as well as prevent him from bringing a physical element to complement Roman Josi's game while the pairing is playing in their own end. It's also possible that Ellis will either miss the next game or start it but have to leave midway through if his injury worsens. Either of those situations would be very bad for the Predators. One option would would mean a second consecutive game of scrambled defense pairings. The other would mean that the Predators have to dress a seventh defenseman.
If yet another one of the black aces gets the call, what can we expect?
When Ryan Ellis was out earlier this season, Irwin played on the second pairing with Josi. The Predators had 61.4% of all shots taken, 57.6% of shots on goal, and 60.7% of scoring chances in just under 200 minutes of shared 5v5 icetime, with only moderately sheltered deployment, for the Josi-Irwin pairing. They were good offensively, but they were also surprisingly good defensively.
This chart from HockeyViz.com shows what Josi's shot rates looked like with every other player on the team he shared at least 100 minutes of 5v5 time with. The blue boxes show Josi's shot rates without the player whose number is in the box, the red boxes show that player's shot rates without Josi, and the black boxes show what the combination of Josi and the other player were able to accomplish on the ice together. The Josi-Irwin pairing is up in the top right corner.
Obviously, Josi and Irwin weren't playing against Sidney Crosby's line in the Stanley Cup Finals. But they were matched up against Nathan MacKinnon's line twice, as well as Anže Kopitar's and Artem Anisimov's lines once, and held their own in terms of controlling the flow of play in all four cases. The Anisimov line gave them the most trouble, which is worrying, but even there Josi and Irwin didn't embarrass themselves.
It's possible that some of the struggles Irwin has had in this series have been worsened by playing with Yannick Weber. It's also possible that some of the struggles Josi has had this season were helped by having a defense partner who saw his role as a supporting one and was more used to adapting to different partners' styles than either Josi or Ellis was. It's even possible that a Josi-Irwin pairing, if necessary, wouldn't be a complete disaster.
However, that means a black ace would draw into the lineup. Peter Laviolette seems to be flexible at this point in the season about making sure that all defense pairs have a left shot and a right shot, which might mean seeing Alexandre Carrier draw into the lineup instead of Anthony Bitetto.
Bitetto has been unimpressive since returning from injury this season. Carrier has played two total games in the NHL. Neither has that much experience with the rest of the team, though Bitetto has more. There are risks to using both of them--including, in Carrier's case, the risk that Laviolette will not give him any icetime late in a tie game or in overtime. Carrier lacks experience, but has a higher ceiling. Bitetto can play a physical game, but is less mobile.
If it's necessary to dress a seventh defenseman, I'd prefer to see Carrier, whose page at Elite Prospects describes him as a mobile, creative all-around defenseman and whose page at Hockey's Future notes that his speed and skating ability are useful to him both offensively and defensively.
The Penguins team that we saw in Game 5 looked more like the Penguins team of 2016. They were relentless as well as explosive. They left the opponent stumbling behind them. All systems failed--forecheck, defense, penalty kill.
The solution to playing against that kind of team hasn't changed. The neutral zone trap doesn't work well enough. Hitting them until they slow down won't work either; we saw what happened when the Ducks tried that strategy on the Predators last round. But last season's Tampa Bay Lightning were one overtime goal away from taking the Eastern Conference Finals in five. They were fast, they could score, and they played very well defensively. Laviolette needs to adapt to the Penguins' modified breakout, but if he needs to replace players he should choose the best ones available to him.
Regardless of whether Ellis can play or someone else replaces him in Sunday's lineup, the most essential thing for the Predators will be learning from their mistakes of the last two games and not repeating them. The skaters need to be sure that Pekka Rinne has a chance to react. Forwards who are covering for a pinching defenseman need to be ready to respond immediately. Defensemen who are playing across from a forward need to be aware that their partner might not have the right instinctive response to a turnover or giveaway in the neutral zone. On offense as well as defense, players need to be able to hit their teammates with a pass and count on someone being in the right place to support.
If they can't do any of that, it doesn't matter who's in the lineup.
This Predators team has responded well to adversity in the past. When they were missing both Subban and Josi this January, they gritted out a sequence of low-scoring wins that kept the team from freefalling out of playoff contention. When Ryan Johansen was injured during the Western Conference Final, Colton Sissons stepped up and scored a hat trick. If they have to play without Ellis, they will play without Ellis. If they can play with Ellis, they will play with Ellis.
Either way, they're coming home to Bridgestone. Peter Laviolette is an excellent coach in the playoffs. The Nashville crowd is the best in the league. There's NHL hockey in Tennessee in mid-June, and this October the Predators will hang at least one banner.
It's not over yet.