The Nashville Predators begin a three game road trip against the Pacific Division with tonight’s game against the Vegas Golden Knights. Will Nashville be able to keep up its hot play, or will the “Vegas Flu” claim another victim? Who will stand out, what should you be watching for, and why does it matter? All of this and more below.
The Golden Knights
After falling down early in the year for a number of reasons (injuries being the primary one), the Golden Knights have rounded back into form and reclaimed their position as arguably the best team in the Pacific Division. The Knights are a well-rounded roster with the ability to beat you multiple ways, making them a problem matchup for any team that’s unlucky enough to bump into them.
Vegas drives play at a top 10 level by both xGF and CF percentages at 5-on-5, but they’ve got the capability to win via star power and sheer shooting talent alone. Fortunately for Nashville, much of that scoring prowess is still working through the aforementioned injury bug that swept through the roster earlier in the year. Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone are currently expected to remain sidelined, although Stone’s situation was described as “day-to-day” in head coach Peter DeBoer’s most recent update.
The injury woes don’t stop there; Vegas netminder and de-facto starter Robin Lehner is listed as day-to-day with a malady as well. That the Knights are second in the Pacific by points percentage without all of these pieces is a testament to how strong their roster is, and things should only get better as the year progresses. With Jack Eichel and the injured players set to boost the existing roster, Vegas is set to regain their standing as an elite Cup contender soon.
For now, Nashville is getting a hard-nosed team that drives play along the wings. Vegas has been notorious under Peter DeBoer for getting impressive results out of middling centers; they’ve achieved this by largely contracting out much of the outlet and exit support functions to the wingers, allowing their centermen more time to make decisions. That Chandler Stephenson, of all people, is scoring at a point-per-game pace says a lot about how effective this is.
The Predators will be best served by toeing the line of physicality and pressing Vegas to the perimeter early in zone entries. Taking aggressive gaps on approaching puck carriers and pushing them wide earlier might force the centers to make more skilled plays, which would be to the Knights’ detriment. Countering the Vegas forecheck with quick outlets from their own end might help, too.
The Preds enter this game hot off of a 6-1 pulverizing of the Chicago Blackhawks at home to ring in 2022. However, when you look into the deeper process of how that game went, it was arguably one of the least impressive outings the roster has had in the past few weeks. That says a lot about the kind of hockey that John Hynes and co. have their roster playing right now.
In Nashville’s last 10 contests, the boys in Gold & Blue haven’t dipped below the 50 percent mark in xGF percentage outside of the Chicago game on New Year’s Day and the Avalanche game back on Dec. 16, 2021. The Chicago game marked the first outing over this span where the team fell below the 50 percent mark in CF percentage. Simply put, the Predators have been producing results in line with what a legitimately strong playoff team looks like.
This is something that hasn’t been seen since around 2019, so it’s worthy of some outward praise. Even if the overall season numbers don’t look as impressive (14th in CF percentage, 11th in xGF percentage at 5-on-5), they’re diluted by the awful start to the year that this team labored under. It’s worth mentioning that the Predators haven’t exactly been dominating titans of the analytics world, with the most difficult opponent faced being a Rangers team riding on Igor Shestyorkin’s titanium shoulders, but nonetheless they’ve been a dangerous hockey team when looking at the process, rather than just the scoring.
Three Big Things
- With Dante Fabbro slated to be missing due to COVID-19, Nashville will be without a key piece of its successful defense corps against one of the league’s top offenses (4th in GF/GP). How will replacement Phil Myers, a key prospect acquired in the Ryan Ellis trade, fare in another chance at snatching a starting role? Does he have any chance at carving out a niche among the established names of Josi, Ekholm, Carrier, Fabbro, and Benning, or will he remain a fringe player with tantalizing physical talents that never seem to see fruition? It’ll be interesting to watch how he performs.
- Tanner Jeannot is tied for the rookie lead in goals and has certainly provided plenty of punch to the Predators’ bottom six, but his defensive results by advanced metrics have taken a hit from last year. What kind of impact will he have, and will John Hynes give him a chance to play in a less sheltered role anytime soon if he keeps scoring?
- This game might come down to the goaltenders. Without most of their top six, Vegas is a formidable, but beatable team that Nashville might be able to out-talent as things stand. Whether the Preds get another sensational showing from Juuse Saros or David Rittich could be the difference. The same goes for the Knights, who will have the cromulent, if not slightly underwhelming Laurent Brossoit between the pipes. This smells like a game where Nashville loses the possession game but gets enough stops to keep things even or better.
Game Day Tunes
Get it? It’s a card joke. Y’know, because people play cards in Vegas. Please laugh.
Happy game day folks, and as always, go Preds.