The Nashville Predators lost an embarrassing Game 1 to the Colorado Avalanche on Tuesday night, with the final score 7-2. Matt Duchene scored both goals—one of them while the road arena was chanting “Duchene sucks”—and that was about all the Preds had going for them. Matt Benning was the Preds’ second-best player in transition and playmaking (as well as making some other, different plays that should have gotten him a phone call).
It was, all around, not a good game.
Now the Preds get to do it again, and this time they need to show that they belong in the same building as the Avalanche. Tuesday’s game featured a team who looked genuinely lost. It’s all very well to say that you play better as the underdogs, but the Preds looked like they had gotten in their own heads about it instead.
Here’s what they need to remember: the Avalanche can be beaten, and so can Darcy Kuemper. The Predators made a few big mistakes in Game One which they can, hopefully, correct heading into tonight.
We saw a lot of deer-in-the-headlights play early on Tuesday—Preds players freezing up in their own zone while trying to get back on the attack. In a way it almost reminded me of some of the overtimes in the first year the NHL implemented 3v3, when the Predators absolutely could not win a game in OT and it came out late that season that former head coach Peter Laviolette hadn’t been having the team practice 3v3 at all. There’s probably no real solution to this except gaining confidence, but maybe the resounding loss will be liberating in its own way: this already happened playing tense, so why not relax?
Another thing we saw a lot of was, as Shaun discussed, the Preds leaning into the wrong aspect of their identity as a physical team. Hitting to hit instead of hitting to separate player and puck is just bad tactics, leaving the player throwing the hit less able to contribute, more likely to get penalized for interference, and rarely accomplishing much besides. The Avalanche players are not piñatas; hitting them often enough will not make a win fall out.
It’s possible that both of these issues might have been surmountable, but the Preds’ ongoing struggle with player discipline was a big problem yet again, and starting David Rittich instead of Connor Ingram was (I’ll have to disagree with Shaun here) a mistake.
While the Avalanche did end up getting called for quite a few non-offsetting penalties of their own last game, the calls were mostly going their way until after the Predators had taken four penalties and given up two power-play goals and a shorthanded goal. Tim Peel isn’t the only referee who considers which team to call a penalty on based on what’s happened—he’s just the only one who considered it on a hot mic.
The Predators took a too-many-men penalty while already on the penalty kill, and although the goal scored in the 5-on-3 advantage was actually put in the net by Mark Borowiecki, he wouldn’t have been in quite that position in the first place if the Preds had managed a cleaner line change. Both of their first two penalties were for high-sticking, an issue that’s plagued them all year; the playoffs aren’t the ideal time to start working on stick discipline, but better late than never. The tripping and holding penalties are what happen if you’re chasing the play, and the roughing penalty was probably at least partly frustration, but there isn’t much of a solution for those except “play better.”
Keeping this series 5v5 as much as possible is something the Preds should be working to do. The Avalanche have a very clear advantage on special teams. Their power play is better than the Preds’ is; their penalty kill is, frankly, more of a threat as well as more effective—the Preds have not managed to score much shorthanded this season, maybe in part because of some of the roster changes. Taking a lot of penalties is something a team should only be doing with a strong power play and a strong penalty kill, and the 2022 Nashville Predators don’t bring that.
One thing they are doing right heading into Game 2 is starting Ingram. Shaun said in his retrospective that Rittich had earned the start, and I do see where he’s coming from. It’s possible that starting a black ace over the guy who’d been with the NHL team backing up all season might have caused some friction in the room.
Rittich still should have had a shorter leash, though. Ingram is an almost-completely unknown quantity, who’s never played in the NHL postseason and had only played three NHL games heading into the evening. Rittich is a known quantity: he might be an okay backup, but he had played 151 regular-season NHL games and 17 minutes of NHL playoffs heading into Tuesday night and none of that suggested he was the guy the Preds needed to have in net to win the game.
To be clear, this isn’t Rittich’s fault. The blame ultimately rests on David Poile, who knew going into this season that the goalie depth was Juuse Saros and a lot of uncertainty. Ingram had missed much of the previous season while in the player assistance program and hadn’t had a lot of time to shake the rust off on his return, and other prospects were even further away from not only the NHL but the AHL. There was never really a long-term backup plan in case Saros got injured, and this came back to bite the Predators at the worst possible time.
Starting Ingram is the choice that Hynes can make to give the Preds the best chance to win tonight, and it’s good to see that he’s making it. Better, less-panicked defense in front of Ingram will be key, as will player discipline.
The Preds’ forwards were almost universally stymied by the Avalanche’s excellent defense, with Roman Josi and Matt Benning leading the team in even-strength shots at goal with five, and Dante Fabbro and Michael McCarron right behind them with four. It’s not any better looking at all-situations play, where Josi led the team with seven and Benning’s five were still second-best. Filip Forsberg was held to three shots at goal all game (only two went on net), and Duchene—with much better shooting luck—only managed four.
Forsberg and Josi are both capable of putting the entire team on their backs and scoring a goal themselves with or without help. Ryan Johansen is capable of making some exceptional passes to undo a good defense, and this season he’s rediscovered his scoring touch. Duchene and Mikael Granlund already performed very well on Tuesday, with a lot of Granlund’s diligent setup work not getting capitalized on. Eeli Tolvanen and Philip Tomasino have both shown brilliant flashes of promise this season.
The Avalanche’s defense is good, but it’s not unbeatable, and this isn’t the Predators team that had forward depth you could fit into a backyard wading pool. Offensively they still have issues, but they also have players who can score, and those players will need to tonight.
This is a winnable game as well as a game the Preds really need to win. The first step for them to win it is to go into the game with the belief that it isn’t already lost.
How to Watch
The game airs at 8:30 Central on Bally Sports South and 102.5 The Game.