Signs of Improvement Yesterday, Goalie Question Today

We take a look at what went right and wrong yesterday and what the Preds can expect today.

The Predators evened their series against the Coyotes in a game that started frustrating, improved, and then got much livelier than we would have liked in the last minute of the game. Nick and Kate take a closer look at what worked and what didn’t in the Preds’ second “home” game in Edmonton, and cover some of what we can expect to see today as the second half of the back-to-back unfolds.

The Good:

Kate: The Predators got some great luck in the form of Darcy Kuemper having an atypically awful time through the first nine shots on goal. It’s not really “good” in that they performed well here, but it’s “good” in that it allowed them to start playing to their potential. Nick, you and Ann talked about morale after the last game—and we’ll get back to that—but it really did help them, I think, to get a boost in the form of a fantastic goalie not being able to make saves.

Nick: It’s funny, because the first period was almost a mirror opposite of the two teams’ performance in Game 1’s first period. Just like Arizona’s first fluke goal derailed the Preds’ hot start Sunday, that first Bonino goal got Nashville out of an early funk in Game 2.

Kate: The Bonino goal was huge, and it was great to see the Nick Bonino line back doing Nick Bonino line things. And it wasn’t just them, either. Ryan Johansen looked a lot better. Kyle Turris didn’t score, but he got several good looks and was involved. The fourth line scored a goal! Seeing the Preds get contributions from up and down the lineup was really refreshing, as well as reassuring; they’ve spent too many postseasons leaning heavily on one line (JOFA in 2017 and 2018, Smith-Bonino-Grimaldi in 2019, etc.), or on Roman Josi, to drive the whole offense.

Nick: In that same vein, I think the Juuse Saros we saw today is the Juuse Saros the Preds are going to need to show up every night if they want to win the Cup. In the playoffs, it’s not enough to simply make the saves you should be making—you need your goalie to more or less take a couple of sure goals off the board. We saw that with Saros early in the first on that quick-fire sequence right before the first goal, and that proved to be a game-changer.

Kate: Definitely. If they’d gone down early again, this game would have had a very different outcome. And it feels like they recognized that Saros was doing all the work to bail them out, because they actually came out for the second period a lot more organized and a lot more energized, and played well in front of him. Improvement during play? From this Predators team? It’s apparently more likely than you’d think.

Nick: I think a lot of that improvement you mentioned starts with puck possession.  For the second period and most of the third, the Predators dominated possession—getting 36 shot attempts in the last two periods to Arizona’s 25 (and a bulk of the Coyotes’ came in the last five minutes, which, SPOILER ALERT, we’ll be talking about shortly). This allowed the Preds to be a little more patient and deliberate in the offensive zone, and, as a result, they were rewarded with a handful of great scoring chances.

The Bad:

Kate: You brought up the Coyotes’ fluke goal derailing the Preds in Game 1, but the Preds got derailed all the way. The first period this game just seemed to be all Coyotes on the ice and all Preds in the net. Getting outshot, outchanced, out xG’d, out slot-passed, out-everything’d more than two to one is a lousy way to set yourself up to win a hockey game. Carson said in his recap that Juuse Saros had a great game, and he did, but I don’t think the fact that he allowed two goals was in any way not reflective of what he was seeing in front of him—the timing is the only thing that doesn’t completely match up. It was a bad start to a vital game.

Nick: You know what else is a bad way to start a vital game? Getting a penalty five seconds into the game. The undisciplined penalties were Nashville’s downfall in the playoffs last year, and we could see the same story this year if the Preds don’t clean things up a bit. Like I said Monday, there’s a huge difference between getting penalized for hooking someone breaking into the zone and getting penalized because you can’t keep track of your line changes.

Kate: Discipline was not great, but it wasn’t quite as bad as I expected from the first few seconds of the game. That said, I feel like a lot of the improved (such as it was) discipline was because the Preds led throughout and it was the Coyotes chasing the game—I’m not confident, especially given what we saw while the score was even and with the too-many-men, that they’ve actually changed their approach significantly.

Nick: Other than a couple of good chances from Matt Duchene late in the game, I’m still waiting for Nashville’s second line to step up. They’re possessing the puck, but for whatever reason, they’re just not getting pucks on net. It’s disappointing because the Duchene-Granlund-Turris trio really found their chemistry at the end of the regular season, and given the Coyotes’ lack of depth, I thought this was going to be a series where those three really shone. We’ve seen flashes (like the aforementioned sequence from Duchene in the third), but overall, that line just hasn’t been a factor.

Kate: (I do have to point out that Kyle Turris sent a puck off the post and along the whole length of the crossbar before it, tragically, bounced out of the net instead of into it back in the second.)

The Ugly:

Kate: “Ugly” is about the only word I’ve got for the third pairing’s performance. They started off bad—including that absolute barrage of shots in the first period that looked like a penalty kill and that Saros barely managed to pull the Preds through, more or less single-handedly—and they finished bad, with Clayton Keller’s goal to ruin the shutout and get the Coyotes some much-needed momentum. Along the way, they were...bad, with no redeeming moments of brilliance or even particular competence. Just brutal, start to finish.

Nick: You summed it up perfectly, Kate. I’m sure someone’s going to chime in with a “oh well OF COURSE you can’t expect the bottom pairing to be as good as your top pair.” And sure, that’s true. But at the same time, you also can’t have your third pair making that many glaring mistakes in the short amount of ice time they get. You don’t need Weber or Tinordi to be game-changers, you just need them to play clean, mistake-free hockey for 15 to 18 minutes a night.

And speaking of that finish... boy, that was... a finish.

I think it’s one thing to let in a late goal when the other team is just throwing everything they can at the net.  But that wasn’t the case here.  These were two goals caused by the Preds not being fully focused on the game.  Luckily, it didn’t cost them the win.  But I’m sure John Hynes isn’t going to be thrilled about that.

Looking Ahead to Today’s Game:

Kate: The biggest storyline for today I think has got to be Antti Raanta’s suspected injury (the Coyotes reported midgame that he was unfit to play). Willy Daunic and Chris Mason speculated that a puck to the head he took in warmups was responsible for his departure from the bench mid-game.

If what happened is anything serious, it would presumably leave the Coyotes with a choice between playing Kuemper again for the second half of the back-to-back or playing 23-year-old Adin Hill, who’s been above-average this season but not as good as Kuemper or Raanta when they’re healthy. The Predators, of course, will presumably start Pekka Rinne, who did not appear completely comfortable in training camp, so either way it feels like this might be a higher-scoring event than the previous two games.

Nick: Who’s going to get the first goal today?  I think the answer to that question is going to dictate how today’s game goes. These two teams have lived and died off of early momentum this series, and for Nashville, it’s been a nagging motif all season long. The Predators have to start fast, but more than that, they actually have to capitalize on their early chances. If we see another situation where Arizona can score a couple of quick goals early, I don’t think the Predators can count on another flukey performance from Kuemper to get them back in the hunt.

The prospect of Rinne starting is going to be something to watch. When camp started, I wrote how much of an advantage that would be for Hynes to be able to play both goaltenders in the early rounds. But as you mentioned, Kate, Rinne didn’t have the best camp, and Saros is coming off a sharp performance. If Rinne starts, how much leash will he have if things start to go south?

Kate: That’s a really good question. I think it depends a lot, on both internal and external factors. I think usually the idea of keeping the starting goalie secret is silly, but in a playoff series—and especially in the second half of a back-to-back in the playoffs—there’s a little more time to scout individual goalies and a little more strategy. If Kuemper gets the start tomorrow for the Coyotes, he doesn’t have a rest advantage, and putting Saros in against him if necessary would leave the teams on theoretically-equal footing again. If it’s Hill, though, Rinne’s leash might be a little longer even if things do start going wrong, because playing a tired goalie against a rested one isn’t a great setup for victory either.

One thing I do feel pretty strongly is that John Hynes isn’t going to make the decision the same way Peter Laviolette would. Laviolette was notoriously rough on his starting goalies even before he came to Nashville, playing them until they broke, and he seemed to have a strong preference for trusting the experienced goalie over the new one in Nashville. If it were Laviolette behind the bench still, I’d say we definitely see Rinne. As it is, I’m not sure.