clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Matching Up Against Nathan MacKinnon Is The Predators’ Top Priority

How should the Preds handle the waking nightmare that is Hart Trophy candidate Nathan Mackinnon? A glance at last year’s playoff match-ups might help.

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

Probably the most important component of this Predators-Avalanche playoffs series from a coaching perspective will be how (and who) to match-up against the Avalanche’s top line. Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog are the most dangerous skaters for the Preds to worry about and it’s not really close.

This group has been especially hot as of late. Take a look at these frightening-as-hell boxcar stats from their last 25 games:

Talk about nightmare fuel.

Nathan MacKinnon is the best player in the series—and the other two are no easy picnic—but there is a way to defend this group. I dare say of all the NHL teams in the playoffs, none are better equipped to handle a single dangerous line than the Nashville Predators.

To start, let’s take a look at how the Preds defended the top lines from last year’s playoffs. For the sake of argument, we will dub these the top opponent lines of the 2017 playoffs:

  • Blackhawks: Patrick Kane, Artemi Panarin, Artem Anisimov
  • Blues: Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz, Paul Stastny
  • Ducks: Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Rickard Rakell
  • Penguins: Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, Conor Sheary

Before we begin, remember that last year the Preds were the road team in every series, so selecting the match-ups was for the most part not in their favor. However, since most of the series went more than four games (hehe...) we can assume that things evened out in the long run. The Preds played 11 home games and 11 away games in the playoffs last year, so that’s a fair assumption.

We will start with the Hawks. While it feels like the Preds ran roughshod over the Hawks, the Kane line was actually fairly productive. Part of this is the score effect—the Preds had a lead in most games and the Kane line was deployed frequently to fuel the comeback. Also, that series was essentially won by Pekka Rinne, as we all know.

Still the Kane line was held relatively in check. Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis played the majority of the defensive minutes against Kane’s line, ending with a 2-0 goals for advantage and a 55%+ high danger shot attempt advantage. Kane and company generated plenty of shot attempts, but they were kept well to the outside by Josi and Ellis. Laviolette matched Johansen’s line against Kane’s most of the time and they fared just as well.

Best match-up against Kane’s line: Johansen, Forsberg, Arvidsson, Josi, Ellis

Next up, the Blues.

Tarasenko’s line came into the series as the clear top line, but didn’t see much success against the Wild in the previous series. And while the Preds probably didn’t take lightly the threat this line brings on the ice, they did get sidetracked a little with the rest of the Blues lineup. Jake Allen was the star of the series for St. Louis. If he doesn’t play well, it probably ends in four or five games.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-St. Louis Blues at Nashville Predators Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Either way, the Preds handled this line well. Mattias Ekholm and P.K. Subban established nice puck possession numbers (Tarasenko generated only a 44% Corsi-For against those two) and held their own in the high danger area. Once again, it was the JOFA line playing the shutdown role, with Tarasenko/Schwartz not able to generate much against them either. Game Two led to the worst results for the Preds on the ice, but they recovered nicely after that.

Best match-up against Tarasenko’s line: Johansen, Forsberg, Arvidsson, Subban, Ekholm

The Ducks created a lot of mismatches on the ice with their combination of speed, skill, and prison-yard bullying. The other problem for the Preds came when arguably their most important forward to that point, Ryan Johansen, was ruled out for the rest of the playoffs with a leg injury.

So shutting down the top line with Ryan Getzlaf became a “by committee” approach, at least when it came to the forwards. Once again, it was Subban and Ekholm playing the majority of minutes against this group, but the forward lines are a story of two halves. In the first half of the series, Calle Jarnkrok, James Neal, and Colton Sissons ran opposite this group, while Johansen was busy digging sticks out of his groin while up against Ryan Kesler. Then Johansen’s line faced the Getzlaf line in Game Four and played well, but soon after the game (a loss in overtime) we heard about Joey’s injury.

So it came down to Games Five and Six, where in steps the most improbable shutdown line of all time: Colton Sissons, Filip Forsberg, and Pontus Aberg.

Sissons had a fantastic pair of games, most notably the hat-trick in Game Six. Still to this day, it makes me laugh. Colton Sissons dominated the Ducks top line in their two most crucial games of the season. He finished with a 54% Corsi-For percentage against Perry and Getzlaf that series.

Best match-up against Getzlaf line: Sissons, Forsberg, Jarnkrok, Subban, Ekholm

Annnnd then there were the Penguins. The most mismatchy of all the mismatches you can have. How do you even game-plan here? You throw all your marbles into the Stop Crosby pile, you have no marbles left for the Stop Malkin or the Stop Kessel piles.

Ultimately, the Preds did ok against Crosby. Josi and Ellis received most of the minutes against Crosby and Guentzel and actually fared quite well. Among the forwards, Arvidsson and Fisher played the most against this group and did fine I suppose. The problem was that while Crosby was “tamed” in the first few games, Malkin was on fire. Then when Crosby came on in Games Three and Four, Malkin was... well still very good.

This is a tough one because at this point the Preds were being held together with paperclips and electrical tape.

Best match-up against Crosby’s line: Fisher, Neal, Arvidsson, Josi, Ellis

The last thing we need to look at before assembling a shut-down unit for MacKinnon’s line is examine how this year’s Preds performed (via Natural Stat Trick)

Remember, you have to reverse the good/bad-blue/red color coding because we are looking at Mackinnon’s numbers.

Yeeeeeesh.

This is every skater who’s played at least 11 minutes against MacKinnon. That’s a lot of possession given up. The guy is a match-up nightmare, I’m telling you.

MacKinnon put up three points in four games against the Preds, including two goals on 16 shots. He will more than likely continue that nearly point per game pace against the Preds in the playoffs.

But there’s a way through! There’s always a way through.

Much like against Patrick Kane and Sidney Crosby, the Josi-Ellis pairing will probably be the best bet to contain MacKinnon. They had considerably better success than Subban-Emelin or even Subban-Ekholm. And what’s this? Could it be?? Western Conference Final Game Six Colton Sissons to the rescue!

Eh, probably not. But it’s an interesting observation.

Given the match-up isn’t just about MacKinnon but also about Rantanen and Landeskog, I think you have to go with the JOFA line plus Josi & Ellis.

The Josi-Ellis part of the solution makes sense when you think about how these two play together. Both are excellent skaters, though Josi is the more dangerous skater of the two, and skating is key to beating a line with MacKinnon. But better than that is their combined decision making. I’ve always said that Ellis is the best decision maker in a pinch-no pinch scenario and his vision over the whole ice is very impressive.

With those two constantly watching play over the whole ice, being ever vigilant for long passes and open lanes to skate in, the Preds should be able to match MacKinnon with some degree of consistency.

There is less hope when looking at the forwards, but the Preds didn’t earn the Presidents’ Trophy by having poor defensive forwards. I think Filip Forsberg is the key here. He will need to play a physical, well-rounded game in this series, especially against the Avs top line.

Best match-up against MacKinnon’s line: Johansen, Arvidsson, Forsberg, Josi, Ellis

The Johansen line played very well last year in the playoffs when they were together. I think that continues here. And if that group does nothing more than isolate MacKinnon’s line from the game, that leaves the Turris line to put up plenty of goals and the Bonino or Fisher line with Hartman and Watson to wreak havoc against the Avs’ bottom six.

At some point, though, we are bound to see MacKinnon take advantage of some bad match-ups. Imagining #29 in maroon & white skating with the puck with a gold #25 bearing down on him does not sound fun. Hopefully the coaching staff can minimize those match-ups and deploy the ones that give the Preds the best chance to win the series.

All stats from hockey-reference.com, corsica.hockey, and naturalstattrick, and are 5-on-5 unless otherwise noted.