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Here’s What Worked: Eight Straight

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A reprisal of last year’s series is necessary to examine what’s worked over these last eight games.

NHL: Nashville Predators at Colorado Avalanche Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

It’s easy to point to the number of two-goal deficits the Nashville Predators have faced over the last eight games and start to worry, but let’s be honest with ourselves: actually winning that many games in a row, no matter how they happen, isn’t an accident. There’s a lot that’s gone right for the team over this impressive eight game win streak.

So with that, it’s time to bust out another “Here’s What Worked”, a series I started last year looking at the bright side of the team’s successes (and failures). If you want to take a glance at previous editions, you can do that here.

The Goalers

The current eight game win streak began 14 days ago in Ottawa. After beating the Senators 5-2, the Preds beat the Red Wings, Sharks, Blues, Jets, Oilers, Canucks, and the Avalanche .

In that span, we’ve seen a variety of entertaining games. There have been shootouts (in Winnipeg), blowouts (at home against San Jose and St. Louis), defensive tug-of-wars (in Detroit), and... well pretty much everything else you could imagine, including two-goal deficits getting erased three different times and even two overtime wins!

One semi-constant factor in those games has been Nashville’s goaltenders. Despite a couple of disappointing outings, the Preds have been well supported in net from their two Finnish goalies.

In that span, Pekka Rinne has gone 6-0 with a .935 save percentage, bringing his season average to .927. He remains one of the best even strength goalies in the league with at least 1000 minutes: his .938 save percentage at 5v5 is 2nd best in the league.

One of his best outings came against the Oilers, where he stopped 34 of 36 shots, playing in his third game in five days. The shot locations map from HockeyViz.com demonstrates Rinne’s ability to gobble up shots from low, medium, and high danger locations.

That Connor McDavid goal was a bit absurd, as he had just slashed Mattias Ekholm’s stick out of his hand and the ensuing confusion led to a scoring opportunity. He doesn’t miss many of those.

But it’s not all just Rinne. Juuse Saros started two of the last eight games, getting two road wins in Detroit and Vancouver. He stopped 58 of 63 shots for a .921 save percentage. His season average sits at .924 in all situations, .932 at 5v5—both excellent numbers for a backup goalie.

Check out this clutch save he made on Gustav Nyquist with the Preds clinging to a 2-1 lead in the 2nd period.

This is a great example of Saros’ positioning and awareness. Check out the :16-:17 second mark of the video. As he’s holding the post with the puck in the corner he gets a quick glance at Nyquist in the slot, then is right there to make the save. He was the only guy in white on the ice who saw Nyquist in the danger area and that early awareness was key to making the play.

The Predators’ offense has been flourishing lately, but the goaltenders should get equal credit for keeping the games close and playing a big part in the win streak.

Best 4th Line In Hockey?

Is it possible that the Predators have the best 4th line in hockey? Could we be so fortunate?

Maybe, maybe not, but right now it’s hard to find a pairing that is working better than Austin Watson and Colton Sissons.

Watson and Sissons have been a lot of fun to watch recently. Both are skating with a lot of confidence, laying hits when necessary, and actually controlling possession better than you’d think.

From NaturalStatTrick’s line stats tool, here’s a look on-ice play when both Watson and Sissons are on the ice compared with when neither of them are on the ice.

There is a dip in all shot attempts (CF%) but not nearly as much as there usually is for a typical Nashville Predators 4th line. And look at the Fenwick! When you remove blocked shots from the equation (Fenwick is typically more closely correlated with scoring chances) those two are getting plenty more chances than they are giving up. All of this with a pathetic offensive zone start percentage.

This is pretty interesting when you think about what Watson and Sissons bring out on the ice. Unsurprisingly, a large amount of their Corsi events allowed are blocked shots (32% for Watson/Sissons, 24% for everyone else). They are both among the team leaders in blocked shots by forwards, but a lot of that is from penalty kill duties. Their Fenwick numbers suggest that when they aren’t blocking shots at 5v5, they are a much better puck-possession oriented pair than you’d think.

Their playing style has a lot to do with that. Using their size, speed, and forechecking abilities, opposing teams are frequently turned away from attacking with the puck and forced to recover in their own defensive zone. Watson’s natural puck carrying abilities (he’s a bit of a poor man’s Ryan Johansen at times) combined with Sissons’ presence in the danger areas leads to a high rate of scoring chances.

While it doesn’t hurt that they’ve been producing in the offensive end as well (they each have three points in this eight game stretch, including three goals from Watson) the 4th line as led by these two is as good as its ever been. For what it’s worth, I’m not sure it matters who that third winger is. Miikka Salomaki maybe hurts the line more than he helps, but not significantly, and anyways it is likely that Ryan Hartman or Mike Fisher or Scott Hartnell end up being the other winger down the stretch. I think we all feel pretty good about those options.

Goals, Goals, Goals!

The biggest key to success for the Predators over the last eight games has been the goal scoring. Scoring 4.6 goals per game (37 goals in 8 games) is well above their season average of 3.2 goals per game (which is nothing to be ashamed of).

It’s possible this is just a sprint of hot shooting that we might expect to wear off eventually. Over the last eight games, the Preds are shooting 10.2%, good for 6th in the league. That seems high, but the Preds have been in the top 10 in team shooting percentage all season long (they are currently 10th with an 8.1 percentage).

But the team isn’t just sniping goals from distance and getting lucky. They are getting to high danger areas with more frequency, generating the 3rd most high danger chances in the league over their last eight games.

From HockeyStats.ca, here are some select heat maps of the Preds’ 5v5 shot attempts over the last couple weeks.

Is this just an eight game stretch of lucky bounces and unsustainable shooting percentages? Maybe. But getting that kind of consistent pressure in the most dangerous areas of the ice is really really good to see. It tells you that the team has a system that is working regardless of whether the puck is going in that night or not.

For much of this season, the advanced stats folks have nitpicked about the Predators’ expected goal differential. They currently sit at 18th in the league in overall xGF%, which isn’t ideal, but a glance at their recent performance (from @ChartingHockey) suggests the team is improving significantly in that area.

We all love goals, but we should love even more that the system for producing goals is working on a nightly basis.