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Predators vs. Hurricanes Preview: Special Teams

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Our annual piece on how whoever the Nashville Predators are seeded against have better special teams than them.

Carolina Hurricanes v Nashville Predators Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images

Next Monday night the Nashville Predators will begin their playoff journey against the Carolina Hurricanes. If the Predators want that journey to be a long one spanning several playoff rounds, they must somehow overcome the most lopsided special teams matchup featured in years.

Yes, it’s a well-known fact that the Predators’ power play has struggled seemingly forever, finishing this season 24th overall. Eeli Tolvanen’s addition singlehandedly turned that rusty system into a well-oiled Mercedes, but the penalty kill also handicapped the Predators this season. The Predators finished 28th in the league with a miserable 75.4% kill rate. On the other bench, the Hurricanes finished the regular season with the #2 power play and #3 penalty kill. That difference between the two teams is nearly as wide as it gets.

That said, while the Predators have a mountain to climb regarding the special teams matchups, it may not all be doom and gloom—just most of it. Let’s dive into the teams, their systems, and what to expect.

Special Teams Overview

For any unfamiliar readers, this is my fifth season tackling the special teams preview here. I try not to repeat myself, but it’s critical to have a baseline understanding of what the various power play and penalty kill systems are, what their “win conditions” are, and how to beat them. Therefore, if you aren’t familiar with how an “overload” flows through the man on the half-wall, check out this preview from the 2017 series against the Chicago Blackhawks, and give a thorough reading over the power play systems section.

Carolina Hurricanes Power Play

Detroit Red Wings v Carolina Hurricanes
Andrei Svechnikov #37 (not pictured) of the Carolina Hurricanes fires a slap shot glove side high power play goal against Jonathan Bernier #45 of the Detroit Red Wings during an NHL game on March 4, 2021 at PNC Arena in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Photo by Karl DeBlaker/NHLI via Getty Images

Carolina Power Play - By the Numbers

Stats Nashville (on PK) Carolina (on PP)
Stats Nashville (on PK) Carolina (on PP)
PK/PP Rank 28 2
PK/PP% 75.40% 25.60%
xGA/xGF 28.11 29.44
SA/SF 239 221
GA/GF 42 42
HDCA/HDCF 81 97
HDGA/HDGF 21 23
PDO 0.963 1.065
Stats courtesy of Natural Stat Trick

The Carolina Hurricanes run an incredibly effective power play, boosted by the sheer number of “threats” that their roster sports. Carolina boasts a number of young players who not only love to shoot the puck, but also have the agility to find and skate into gaps to reach dangerous areas of the ice. This combination of lethality and vision is what made them the second-best power-play unit in the NHL this season.

Just like the Predators, the Hurricanes run an umbrella power play. However, they adapt it so that, instead of just having two bodies right in front of the net, the puck-side player down low will bounce off the post and hang tight, be it to make a play down low or for the left tip of the umbrella to sneak down for a give-and-go. In this goal against the Predators, both Andrei Svechnikov and Sebastian Aho, the two tips of the umbrella, collapse down against the collapsing Predators to force even numbers in front of the net. It’s a hyper-aggressive strategy choice, leaving just the top of the umbrella back to defend if something goes wrong.

However, the combined speed and work rate of the Hurricanes’ players enables this aggressive play. They can do this because of how confident they are that they can beat the Predators back to the other end and negate an odd-man rush. However, that isn’t always the case—the Hurricanes gave up the fourth most shorthanded goals this season with six. For comparison’s sake, the Predators only gave up two. Still, considering just how aggressive the Hurricanes are, it’s still impressive that they’ve only given up six goals while on the power play. However, it does mean that there will be chances for the Predators to skate it back for a good chance on goal—they just have to outskate Carolina.

Meanwhile, the Nashville Predators’ penalty kill is significantly better than their rank. To his credit, one of the first notable changes last season when John Hynes took over as head coach was how much more structured the penalty kill looked. The old “run and gun for a shorthanded goal” strategy was exposed over and over, and Hynes forced the Predators to commit to a more structurally sound system that collapsed towards their own net to prevent high-danger chances. You know what? It worked. The Predators actually gave up the 12th-fewest high danger chances in the league this season while on the penalty kill with 81 high-danger chances against. Finishing middle of the pack in shots against, it’s clear that the structure is working as intended.

Unfortunately for John Hynes, what he can’t do is ask Juuse Saros to make a save for him while down a man. There’s an old adage in hockey that your goalie is your most important penalty killer. For as good as he’s been at even strength, Juuse Saros is still the reason why the Predators’ penalty kill is atrocious. While shorthanded, the Predators’ goaltending has cobbled together an embarrassing save percentage of .824%. There’s no way to sugar coat it: Saros has been atrocious when the Predators have been killing penalties. Our own Bryan Bastin put together these graphs demonstrating Saros’s performance with a Predators skater in the penalty box:

Bryan Bastin - OnTheForecheck
Bryan Bastin - OnTheForecheck

Goaltending is such a fickle thing in hockey. The play of Saros stoops to such a low level while shorthanded that it singlehandedly makes the rest of the Predators’ penalty kill look terrible. As stated above, the Predators had a save percentage of .824% while shorthanded. If that number is increased to match Carolina’s .876%, the Predators would have given up a whopping twelve fewer goals this season, brining their total down from 42 goals against to 30. That would lead the entire NHL in fewest goals given up on the power play. It’s a great penalty kill that’s getting destroyed by bad goaltending.

So, you know what? Yes, Carolina has a phenomenal power play. But John Hynes has the Predators doing a great job collapsing and taking away those high-danger chances that the Hurricanes thrive off of. The only change to the penalty kill that John Hynes needs to make is, I don’t know, for Roman Josi to skate by Saros before the faceoff and tell him to make a save?

Carolina Hurricanes Penalty Kill

Carolina Hurricanes v Nashville Predators
Eeli Tolvanen #28 of the Nashville Predators skates in warm-ups prior to the game against the Carolina Hurricanes at Bridgestone Arena on May 8, 2021 in Nashville, Tennessee.
Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images

Carolina Penalty Kill - By the Numbers

Stats Carolina (on PK) Nashville (on PP)
Stats Carolina (on PK) Nashville (on PP)
PK/PP Rank 3 24
PK/PP% 85.20% 17.60%
xGA/xGF 25.28 25.4
SA/SF 210 225
GA/GF 26 28
HDCA/HDCF 87 59
HDGA/HDGF 14 13
PDO 0.979 1.074
Stats courtesy of Natural Stat Trick

Another advantage of having a young, quick team is that, when defending, the Hurricanes are able to pivot quickly and keep up with an offense’s moves. Moreover, Head Coach Rod Brind’amour turned this group of Hurricanes into arguably the hardest-working group in hockey. It’s one thing to be young and talented, and another to maximize every ounce of that talent. Full credit to their coaching staff and players for creating a system that suffocates opponents through relentless pressure.

How can the Predators’ not-so-great power play compete against Carolina’s stellar penalty kill?

Well, for one, the Predators’ power play is underrated. Since February 20th when winger Eeli Tolvanen started seeing a significant increase in playing time, the Predators actually have the 12th-best power play in the NHL. This includes a period of time in which Tolvanen was injured and the power play ground once more to a halt.

Just as the penalty kill for the Predators rides and dies by the play of Juuse Saros, it’s really incredible how impactful the sole presence of Eeli Tolvanen is for the Predators’ power play. Finally, with a player whose sole joy is the simple act of ripping a goal from anywhere he wants, Tolvanen and his lethal shot gave the Predators power play that weapon they’ve needed since James Neal left Nashville.

Eeli Tolvanen scores goalscorer’s goals. Playing as a lefty on the left tip on the umbrella, Tolvanen can’t one-time a shot like Ryan Ellis when he was situated there. But it doesn’t matter—Tolvanen can collect the puck, skate into more dangerous ice, and then have the confidence and swagger to wind up a slapshot anyway with the goalie back in position, knowing he’s still going to score. Only goalscorers do that.

And, as this second clip demonstrates, it’s not just the slap shot either. Tolvanen has the spatial awareness to know when he can jump low and get a quicker shot off on the pass. Here, this snapshot is dirty, as Tolvanen waits for the puck to cross his body but then is still able to get the shot off fast and accurate enough to beat the goalie.

Against Carolina, the Predators are going to run into two key strategic issues against the Hurricanes’ penalty kill. First and foremost, Filip Forsberg, playing on the opposite end of the umbrella from Tolvanen, has accumulated a lot of assists from the cross-ice pass to Tolvanen. With the pressure the Hurricanes bring, rushing and getting in the face of opposing puck holders while on the penalty kill, Forsberg won’t have the time he often has to make that pass. Furthermore, that pass may not even become available in the short window of time that the Hurricanes will give Forsberg to make a play. However, teams that apply fierce pressure while on the penalty kill typically leave pockets of space in the middle of the ice. If the other Predators can sneak into these pockets, Forsberg could have other options against the Hurricanes than just Tolvanen.

The second strategic issue is again with that pressure. Just as Filip Forsberg won’t have the time and space to make that perfect cross-ice pass, Eeli Tolvanen will be a lucky man if he is ever gifted that same space for a slapshot against Carolina like he was given in the clip above against Chicago. Tolvanen still has a wicked wrist shot and a great snap shot, but one of the big criticisms about his game prior to his sticking in Nashville was that the NHL moved too fast for him. This fierce Hurricanes penalty kill will be a tall task for Tolvanen—can he succeed against an elite penalty kill in a playoff series?

Conclusion

NHL: MAY 08 Hurricanes at Predators
Nashville Predators goalie Juuse Saros (74), of Finland, acknowledges the fans at the conclusion of the NHL game between the Nashville Predators and Carolina Hurricanes, held on May 8, 2021, at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee.
Photo by Danny Murphy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Predators’ special teams aren’t that bad, they’re just incredibly dependent on individual players. If Juuse Saros had been able to provide the Predators with the same goaltending that the Hurricanes received on the penalty kill, the Predators would have given up the fewest power play goals in the entire NHL. Instead, the Predators have the 28th-worst penalty kill. On the offensive side, despite finishing 24th in the NHL, the addition of Eeli Tolvanen to the power play brought the Predators’ abysmal power play into a respectable status. Since February 20th, when Tolvanen started seeing more playing time, the Predators hold the 12th-ranked power play. Neither the power play nor penalty kill is inherently bad; they just greatly depend on the performance of individual talents.

Unfortunately, the Hurricanes have a significant amount of individual talents that are young, fast, lethal, and, most of all, hard-working. The Hurricanes skate their rears off for Head Coach Rod Brind’amour, but he also gives them the space and freedom for their own creativity. Need I remind anyone of all of Andrei Svechnikov’s attempts and successes at scoring the Michigan goal?

No, the Predators’ special teams aren’t bad, but they are thoroughly outclassed by Carolina. The fix is easy for the penalty kill—the Predators just need Juuse Saros to be an average goaltender—but the power play and Eeli Tolvanen might have a hard time handling the speed and pressure presented by the Hurricanes, and the power play’s success will hang on how well they can read Carolina’s pressure before it arrives.