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Nashville Enters Playoffs With Strongest and Deepest Team in Franchise History

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A mere point shy of their best record in franchise history with six games to play, Nashville has never been better prepared for a deep playoff run.

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Nashville Predators are headed to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Last year’s incredible run to the Final showed the League that Nashville is indeed a hockey market that can boast one of the top teams of the playoffs. Who can forget those golden moments inside Bridgestone? The gold-clad masses waved towels and screamed their lungs out.

The 2017 playoffs indicated that the Predators would require several things to be successful in future playoff endeavors. The players immediately said that they wanted home-ice advantage this season for another deep playoff run. Depth, stellar goaltending, and balanced scoring are other obvious requirements for a team to lift the Stanley Cup.

Perhaps some of the topics below can be considered intangibles. The team’s chemistry and locker room dynamics come into play during the tough, grinding playoff schedule. Some of the below topics can be understood with simple statistics available from hockey reference websites, and I’ve tried to include some of those without going into the #fancystats.

Be on the lookout for more OTF articles with specific statistics, charts, and graphs about the below topics. I’m hitting these subjects only to give a brief overview of where Nashville is at the end of March.

Some tools require a bit of work to make perfect. In this piece, I take a wide-ranging look at some things the Nashville Predators need to tweak, maintain, and preserve in order to make another long Cup run.

Special Teams

Over the past 15 or so games, the Predators have been playing some excellent hockey. Even on a three-game losing skid, they were able to get back on their game on Tuesday against Minnesota. They’ve pulled off come-from-behind wins on some of the best teams in the League. They’re seeing scoring from everywhere in the lineup. Even in losses, the penalty kill has looked rather good.

The power play, however, has been plodding along at an abysmal pace. Nashville did not score a single goal on the power play on their last road trip. They’ve added just one goal at home on the power play from Viktor Arvidsson.

They’re not doing poorly compared with the rest of the League; they’re tied for 6th place in power play goals with San Jose. They’re 13th in power play percentage. As we saw on last week, the power play was very bad against a stifling Toronto penalty kill. It was just as rough against Winnipeg. That’s not good. It’s actually quite ugly.

While this isn’t as concerning as the number of penalties the Predators take, successful teams like Winnipeg, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis have a tendency to make the Predators pay on the penalty kill. Working on the power play can ensure the Predators make their opponents regret committing penalties in crucial playoff games.

I saw several comments on Twitter that suggest that the power play is overly complicated. It seems like guys are wanting to make passes instead of shooting on net. Those one or two extra passes often leads to the opposing team gaining control of the puck and clearing the zone. The power play should be simplified as Nashville enters the playoffs.

The Predators have an excellent penalty kill however, 6th in the NHL in penalty kill percentage. This, however, is not an excuse to exercise poor discipline on the ice...even if Anaheim (or Winnipeg or St. Louis) is a team of dirty, nasty, and ugly Ducks (or Jets or Blues).

Austin Watson and P.K. Subban lead the team in penalty minutes. These two are also some of the best penalty killers, so with either player in the box, the penalty kill is down a man. Nick Bonino and Mike Fisher are excellent penalty kill assets, too.

With an injured Austin Watson, what will happen to the penalty kill? Better discipline can help, but the Preds will inevitably be whistled for something, forcing a penalty kill.

Im-Pekka-ble Goaltending

Pekka Rinne has easily been the best player for the Predators this season. He has put up incredible numbers, including 8 shutouts. He has a .931 save percentage through 53 games. 40 of those 53 games have been wins. He’s posted his lowest goals against average (GAA) since the 2010-2011 season.

This season, he’s reached milestones of 50 career shutouts (and counting), 300 career NHL wins (and counting), and most shutouts and wins by a Finnish goaltender. What more could Pekka Rinne give us? He’s given Nashville everything this season...and at 35 years old! He’s like a fine bourbon that gets better with time.

As of the Buffalo game on March 19th, 37 of Rinne’s starts have been high-quality starts. High-quality starts mean that the goaltender posts a save percentage equal to or higher than the league-average save percentage.

The net-front presence of the team will affect either Nashville goaltender. If the team does not clean up chances in front of their net (see below), the goaltender has to work a bit harder to see and manage pucks. The game in Minnesota is a perfect example of a team failure to clean up around the net. Three of the Wild’s four goals were put in the net from right around the goal crease.

One part of Nashville’s goaltending that has gained more attention recently is the play of young Juuse Saros. He looked a little rough to begin the season, but some short trips to Milwaukee quickly got Saros back in the saddle. Saros benefits from seeing a lot of shots, and like Rinne, Saros can keep the Predators in a game when they are fighting to force overtime or win.

This season, Saros posted a franchise record for most saves made in a game with 54.

The Predators could start Saros for the rest of the regular season and still keep their incredible lead in the Central Division. Saros has a .925 save percentage, and the team is confident with either goaltender in the crease.

Rinne will continue to get more starts than we wish he would simply because he is vying for the Vezina, but he will likely rest a bit more over these last couple weeks.

#Rinne4Vezina

AP

Net-Front Presence

Scott Hartnell and Mike Fisher are absolute professional net-front men. They screen the opponent’s goaltender, forcing him out of position to see the puck. Hartnell and Fisher, as well as Viktor Arvidsson, are pests in front of the net.

We know that pucks tend to go in the net when the goalie is screened. With the addition of Ryan Hartman, the Predators’ net-front presence is increased. Gritty plays that involve guys driving to the net will be crucial against teams like Anaheim and Colorado.

Here’s the goal from the Buffalo game where Hartnell and Fisher park themselves in front of goaltender Linus Ullmark:

I’ll repeat: good things happen when Nashville screens the goaltender and crashes the net.

On the other hand, the Predators should seek to clean up their play in front of their goaltender. As we saw in Minnesota, the same net-front presence that works so well for us can work against us. Clearing rebounds and managing pucks around the goal crease will prevent greasy goals by opponents who crash the net. Rinne stands his ground and it’s up to his teammates to get the puck away from his blue ice.

Shutting Down the Neutral Zone

The Predators have the ability to shut down the neutral zone. (See 2017 Chicago First-Round Series). Well-placed sticks can force the puck off an opponent’s stick. This is frustrating to other teams, and it works. Nashville saw the rough end of that against Toronto on Thursday evening.

The game against Minnesota in Bridgestone earlier this week was a classic example of tight defensive play. Defensemen like Roman Josi and P.K. Subban prevent clean zone entries, forcing opposing teams to dump the puck into the Preds’ zone.

When an opponent turns over the puck, you see all five Predators on ice push immediately into the opponent’s zone. This is classic Laviolette style, and it’s effective. The Predators have speed, and they perform well when they utilize it.

Home Sweet Bridgestone

Bridgestone Arena is known around the NHL as one of the loudest arenas in hockey. We can definitely make a case that Bridgestone is THE loudest arena in the NHL...and all our noise is real and not piped-in via the sound system.

The Predators love to play at home. They constantly talk about how great the fans are, even when the team is struggling on-ice. Smashville “Standing O’s” are eardrum-shattering. My ears were ringing for nearly a day after the Preds won the Western Conference Final last season.

The arena itself is a class venue. From excellent food choices to an always-packed team store, Bridgestone caters to every single fan and makes the game experience one that won’t be forgotten.

It’s got to be an awful experience for another team to play in Nashville. They get zero love, their goalie sucks, their coach sucks too, and it’s always all their fault.

Did you want to try some hot chicken Mac-and-cheese? Catfish and fries? What about some Nashville-brewed Yazoo beer? You can get all of that inside the Bridge.

Do you want to hear a country music superstar sing the Star-Spangled Banner? You’ve gotta get to Bridgestone. Want to spy on Carrie Underwood and jam to the Kings of Leon during intermission? Go to the Bridge.

Don’t believe me? Get yourself some tickets and get to a playoff game? I guarantee the pre-game show will be worth the price of admission. Just wait for that glorious goal horn to go off.

Who Will Be the Next Man Up?

Nashville is a team blessed with depth. The forward lines can rotate when required by injury. Perhaps the best example of the “next-man-up” mentality is the play of Colton Sissons in last year’s Western Conference Final. With Ryan Johansen sidelined with injury, Sissons stepped up and played a 1C role, adding several goals in the process.

In the Cup Final, Frederick Gaudreau and Pontus Aberg embodied this mentality as they put up points against the powerful Penguins.

With their incredible depth, we might not see as many Milwaukee Admirals players called upon to play during the playoffs. The black aces are likely Freddy Gaudreau, Harry Zolnierczyk, Emil Petterson, and Alexandre Carrier. Anders Lindback will provide goaltending depth.

As mentioned above, Eeli Tolvanen can add some scoring depth. How cool would it be for Tolvanen to tear up the KHL playoffs, the Olympics, and the World Junior tournament...and then blow away the NHL with his sniping? Holy heck.

It seems like every series has a hero. Who will be the next hero for the Nashville Predators?

Final Thoughts

Nashville is a team that’s been slowly built to employ speed, top-notch defending, and stellar goaltending in nearly every game. They can incorporate their talents as a team in this playoff run. David Poile has put together a team for a Cup, and fans expect a deep run.

I don’t know about you, but I can picture the Cup celebration in my head. I can picture Roman Josi handing the Cup to Pekka Rinne. I can picture the celebration, the joy, and the pure thrill of the Nashville Predators winning the Stanley Cup. Can you?

You saw last summer’s celebration...the gold waves of fans, the giant screens on Broadway, the pre-game country music concerts. The Predators have all the right tools in place to make this Cup run happen. It could be a bumpy ride, but I know Nashville fans have faith in this team. I know I’m along for the ride.

Feel free to comment below if you have additional thoughts on things the Predators absolutely need in order to win the Stanley Cup.

All statistics in this article are courtesy of hockey-reference.com, predators.nhl.com, and foxsports.com.

Poll

What is Nashville’s biggest weakness entering the playoffs?

This poll is closed

  • 5%
    A. Scoring
    (26 votes)
  • 3%
    B. Defending
    (16 votes)
  • 0%
    C. Goaltending
    (1 vote)
  • 44%
    D. Taking too many penalties
    (217 votes)
  • 46%
    E. The power play
    (229 votes)
489 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Which "intangible" factor is most important to the Nashville Predators’ success in the playoffs?

This poll is closed

  • 14%
    A. Locker room chemistry
    (63 votes)
  • 14%
    B. Potential West coast travel
    (65 votes)
  • 16%
    C. Mental strength
    (72 votes)
  • 35%
    D. Home ice/7th Man
    (159 votes)
  • 20%
    E. Playoff experience
    (90 votes)
449 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Which forward do you want to see step up during this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs?

This poll is closed

  • 20%
    A. Colton Sissons
    (91 votes)
  • 37%
    B. Ryan Hartman
    (166 votes)
  • 14%
    C. Austin Watson
    (67 votes)
  • 20%
    D. Mike Fisher
    (94 votes)
  • 6%
    E. Mike Salomaki
    (30 votes)
448 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Who is your preferred first round opponent?

This poll is closed

  • 39%
    A. Colorado Avalanche
    (181 votes)
  • 4%
    B. Anaheim Ducks
    (22 votes)
  • 8%
    C. LA Kings
    (37 votes)
  • 47%
    D. St. Louis Blues
    (218 votes)
458 votes total Vote Now