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Communication, Discipline, Power Play Doomed Preds in Stars Series

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Turns out it’s a lot easier to win a hockey game or four if your players are in the right place doing the right things to score goals.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Nashville Predators at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Nashville Predators were the Central Division’s sacrifice this year to the hockey gods in a postseason when all four division winners were upset by a wild card, from the Tampa Bay Lightning—who tied a regular-season record for wins before getting swept by a team which had never previously won a playoff series—to the defending Stanley Cup champions the Washington Capitals. The Calgary Flames, who had been excellent during the regular season, were obliterated by the Colorado Avalanche despite finally getting competent—better-than-competent—goaltending.

And then there were the Predators, who got the matchup most of us wanted but looked terrible in the process. It’s some consolation to me, in a weird way, that they didn’t look as if they would have fared any better against the Blues, and certainly not against these playoffs Avalanche—in other words, that a little change in someone else’s luck as the seeding was finalized probably wouldn’t have changed the outcome. At the same time, watching the team you cheer for look terrible in the playoffs is never a fun time.

Historically Bad Power Play + Playoffs = Bad Combination

In the postseason, 5v5 play tightens up and special teams become much more of a factor. During the first round this year, some teams scored a lot of power play goals (the San Jose Sharks and the Vegas Golden Knights had eight each, in their seven-game series against each other, though four of the Sharks’ came on a controversial single major power play). Some teams scored on a lot of their power plays (the Columbus Blue Jackets had five power play goals on ten opportunities against the Lightning). Even the Lightning and the Pittsburgh Penguins, both of whom got swept, each managed to score one power play goal before vanishing into ignominy.

And then—again—there were the Predators. They had fifteen opportunities, more than either the Lightning (6) or the Penguins (11), but with a little help from the Stars they managed to keep themselves off the board every time. It was...bad.

There were 66 power-play goals scored in the first round this season, out of 266 total goals—in other words, roughly one out of every four goals this postseason was a powerplay goal. This regular season, there were 7,542 goals scored, and 1,438 of those were powerplay goals—a little less than one out of every five. During the postseason, as 5v5 play tightens up, special teams become more critical.

The Predators’ penalty kill was actually pretty solid (or Pekka Rinne was, anyway), despite that one awful game, but the power play—continuing its unbelievably impotent regular-season performance—killed them.

They didn’t get many opportunities, despite a few things that looked like they should have been called, but as someone who regularly tweets “Can’t they just decline this power play?” I’m not as bothered as I should be that the referees seemed to be making their calls a little one-sidedly. Still, they did get fifteen chances over the six games, including multiple opportunities in Game 6, which they lost in overtime. If they’d scored on the last power play of Game 6, there’d have been a Game 7 on Wednesday, and maybe more hockey after that.

Probably not too much more hockey, though, because the power play wasn’t the only thing going wrong.

There Is No Free Candy in the Penalty Box

The Dallas Stars got a fair few more power play opportunities than the Preds did, and by and large those were good calls. There were a couple I remember not agreeing with, but there were also a couple of times it seemed like someone on the Preds got away with something, so it comes out in the wash.

Mattias Ekholm, who’s been extremely reliable defensively for years and had a breakout offensive season this year, was tied for fifteenth out of 322 skaters this postseason in penalty infraction minutes, and, unlike most of the players ahead of him, he managed to do that without a single major or misconduct. Night after night, when the Predators needed Ekholm to be out there shutting down the Stars’ top line and driving play up the ice, Ekholm would instead do something stupid, and maybe argue with a ref about it after. As a top-pairing defender, you can’t do that. I was actually surprised to learn he only took penalties in three of the six games this series—though he did have three penalties in one of them—because it seemed constant.

He was the most prominent culprit but not the only one. Filip Forsberg, a key offensive player and a superb penalty killer, was tied with Austin Watson for second on the team. One of Watson’s was taken as a result of poor defensive play while the Predators were already on the penalty kill, putting them 3v5 for a time, while the others were just taken as a result of poor defensive play at 5v5—also not great, from a player who was being given ice time in order to play well defensively.

Forsberg had a rough series in general, but the penalty of his that most stands out was a flailing clear over the glass just a moment after the Predators had just given up a powerplay goal in Game 4, that let the Stars go up 2-0 just a few moments into the game.

There were other bad penalties throughout the series as the frustration mounted, and some of the players joining the parade to the penalty box were making a special trip there—the sight of Calle Järnkrok putting a Stars player in a headlock is still very strange to me, and Juuse Saros joined the goon squad with a delay of game that wasn’t a great move either. (I do want to commend Ryan Ellis for managing to either not do anything or not get caught; he’s taken some memorable penalties in the past, and he stayed out of the box completely this series.)

All of this added up to a lot more work on the penalty killers—including the three top-four defenders not named Mattias Ekholm, all of whom were needed fresh in other situations—and a harder time establishing effective game flow.

Where Did All the Offense Go?

As I’ve mentioned a few times before, the Predators’ top six combined for as many goals as Rocco Grimaldi and Roman Josi did. Going into the series, I said that the Stars and the Preds were both a one-line team, and I liked the Preds’ depth better than I did the Stars’.

I made one pretty bad miscalculation, and it’s possible that Peter Laviolette & co. made the same one: trade deadline pickup Mats Zuccarello, who’d been having a less-than-exceptional season with the New York Rangers and broke his arm in his first game as a Dallas Star, had just returned from that injury. Rachel called him an X-factor and I thought she was right, but I certainly didn’t expect him to come back and immediately be much better than he’d been when he got injured.

But he did and he was. So Zuccarello gave the Stars two lines, and the Predators had one (1) Rocco Grimaldi.

Viktor Arvidsson, who shot 17.4% this season, had regression hit at the worst possible time, probably made worse by the way he gets defended in the playoffs. I don’t want to put the blame entirely on his size, because it isn’t just that; Arvidsson is mostly a volume shooter who relies on shooting enough pucks, and he’s also someone who’s always been a little less likely to successfully stay on his feet than most of the other roster players, including others his own size or smaller. It seems like he’s getting thrown off just enough, and then the pucks are having a harder time making it through to the net as well.

It wasn’t just Arvidsson, though. Filip Forsberg had one goal. Ryan Johansen actually had a goal of his own, but he only had a single assist to follow a regular season in which he’d put up fifty. Kyle Turris played well on paper and didn’t look anywhere near as bad on the ice as he did right after getting back from injury, but he only managed one goal. Same for Craig Smith, who saved his for overtime in Game 2, and Mikael Granlund, who has severely underwhelmed in gold.

Regression hit the Colton SissonsNick Bonino–Austin Watson line as well; they’d been bad in the regular season but getting lucky, and although Watson had a goal and Bonino at least managed two assists, they didn’t have anything like the performance they did last year against Colorado. The fourth line was the only forward line that didn’t underperform expectations, mostly thanks to Grimaldi. Järnkrok played a lot better once he was freed of Bonino, but he is never going to be a goalscorer—he just doesn’t have finishing talent—and this year, as in 2017, he had a couple of agonizingly memorable misses.

The problem with the offense seemed to boil down to a lack of communication. It was especially prominent with Turris’s line, which has spent the whole season being shuffled around, but it wasn’t just them. Everyone looked like they’d just met up with a bunch of strangers for some pickup hockey, except that pickup hockey happened to be in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Players weren’t in the right places to receive a pass or make a shot immediately. They had to move—often just a few feet—to get into position, which gave the Stars’ defense time to meet them. The aim as the attacking player is just about always to get the defenders and goalie moving out of position because they can’t keep up with the puck. If you have to wait for your teammates, you’re letting the opponent catch up as well. You’re making yourselves easy to play against.

Let Us Know If Defense Wins Championships

The same was true in the defensive zone. The Predators struggled in transition all series, unable to adapt to Jim Montgomery’s defensive scheme in order to get into the offensive zone cleanly and with possession, but it was, if anything, worse the other way.

The passes to no one that became turnovers were a huge problem. Forsberg had several really bad ones. I know P.K. Subban also had a couple, but because it’s so much a part of the narrative about him it gets repeated by broadcasters who don’t even always bother to point out when one of his teammates does the same thing. I do know for sure that Forsberg and Subban weren’t the only ones doing this.

Some of this was the Predators putting themselves in bad spots in the defensive zone, letting themselves be drawn into one area of the ice so that there was no good way to get the puck out of trouble and also no good way to protect Rinne. When they tried to get the puck out of their self-inflicted mess, either the skater couldn’t make it out at all, or the skater dumped the puck and the Stars’ attackers immediately collected it and headed back in.

Skaters lost their defensive assignments or left opponents completely unmarked—John Klingberg scored the series-winning goal in overtime with nobody on him, which is just completely inexcusable. At one point Roman Josi stood there watching the puck without moving to interrupt the play at all, even ineffectively, which is not just inexcusable, it’s incomprehensible. Most of the issues with communication seem like the kind of thing that practice can fix, and then there’s that.

Throughout the series, and more than just the series, the Preds had no support for each other or the puck, and so they ended up relying too much on Rinne.

Rinne himself wasn’t perfect, but I find it hard to blame him even for the brutal start to Game 4, and apart from that he was one of the Predators’ best players this series, especially because he always seemed to be trying. For yet another postseason, Rinne deserved better, and he didn’t get it.


The statistics used in this article are courtesy of corsica.hockey. Thanks also to hockeyviz.com for assistance with the big picture, and, in this case, for confirming just how good Filip Forsberg is on the penalty kill.