The Nashville Predators faced off with the Chicago Blackhawks tonight in a game with heavy playoff implications. Who stood out, what were the storylines, and where will things go from here? All that and more below.
What went well?
The Predators had a game that could best be described as “opportunistic,” a word that masks a lot of problems (but more on that later). Nashville had about six quality looks to transform into scoring tonight, but they managed to finish two of them. Mikael Granlund looked fantastic and now has five points in his last three games, Eeli Tolvanen again flashed the passing ability that makes his profile for potential growth so exciting, and Juuse Saros stood on his head to register yet another Vezina-worthy outing.
The Johansen goal was set up by a great pass from Tolvanen, but it’s worth noting that the towering pivot has been much improved in front of the net this season. Johansen doesn’t have a shooter’s mentality, but he has the frame and hands to be a useful player from in tight; this is a positive development for a guy whose game needs to evolve in order for him to remotely live up to his contract.
This tally was almost all Mikael Granlund; the finish by Kunin was more or less “oh Malcolm Subban, bless your heart.” Kunin deserves credit for his nose for the net, though. As a young talent whose performance has mostly been excused throughout his career due to projectability, his offense is still a standout trait that’s clearly propelled by his hockey IQ. While the defensive zone play for the young Wisconsin product is still a mess, his promise as an xG darling is tangible.
Erik Haula put home another pretty iffy goal, and Mattias Ekholm barely missed a shutout-saving play with his stick. The Preds improved in every period of play, Matt Duchene attacked the net with speed to draw defenders and penalties a few times, and the third pairing continued its miraculous trend of somehow looking viable. Other than that, not much else worth noting in this one.
What could have been better?
Nashville got crushed in terms of overall process for a good chunk of the game before the Hawks simply ran out of gas. The first period in particular was a mess; Chicago pressed in the neutral zone and trapped the Preds for four consecutive shifts, ultimately getting shut down by Juuse Saros. Again, the Preds really didn’t look like a legit playoff team in this game, conceding a multitude of partial breakaways and uncovered chances from the slot to a poor Hawks roster.
This kind of stuff isn’t going to fly against the better rosters in the division. With a rubber match coming up to decide who ultimately gets the Wild Card between the Dallas Stars and the Predators, the play in the neutral zone remains a massive concern, especially against players and teams with superior speed. Jason Robertson and Roope Hintz are going to have a field day if Nashville isn’t able to clean up their slow starts and archaic approach to moving through center ice.
Three Big Things
- Juuse Saros has been excellent and honestly deserved the shutout tonight. Preds fans (as well as the team) need to get some momentum going for his Vezina campaign. I’m here for it; after sitting among the bottom ten goalies in the league (or somewhere in that region) in GSAx to start the year, Saros currently ranks 12th in the stat. His play over the last month and a half has been nothing short of transcendent.
- Matt Duchene has been catching a lot of hate as usual, but he played pretty well tonight all things considered. I know that we’re all getting tired of the “well, he didn’t score, but he’s doing all the right things” mantra, but it’s true. Matty D contributed in transition, had a few plays where he gained a step on the defender and turned something into nothing, and even drew a penalty late when Nashville was trying to put things away. Unlike a certain other maligned Predators center acquired after a stint in Ottawa, the numbers reflect only good things (no slight to Kyle Turris, just speaking the truth).
- Eeli Tolvanen remains the most exciting aspect of the future of this roster. With the Predators likely stuck in limbo thanks to David Poile’s “I believe in the heart of the cards!” philosophy, having a potentially elite talent makes all of that a bit less grim. Combine him with the still-developing talent of Kunin, and there’s reason to have hope beyond this season, even if it ends in a beating at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning/Carolina Hurricanes.
Even if it arrived in messy fashion, the Predators grabbed a win that moves them closer to the postseason. That’s worth celebrating.
I present this banger. Good night, good hockey, and as always, go Preds.