The Good, The Bad, The Ugly: A 2021 Nashville Predators Playoff Postmortem
Although some things worked for the Predators, many things did not.
It would be a struggle for the Nashville Predators to grace the idea of advancing to the second round. The Carolina Hurricanes—the best team in the 2021 season’s makeshift Central Division—were about as tough as they come. It’s now been more than a week since the heartbreaking overtime loss in Game 6, and I’ve had ample time to gather my thoughts on the matter.
While I predicted that the Canes would win in six games, I didn’t think it would be in this fashion. The Predators scratched and clawed their way to two victories, each coming in double overtime, and at times gave Carolina fits at even-strength. However, the Hurricanes exposed many of the flaws we saw during the regular season against the top Central teams frequently. Before we get into those, though, I would like to say this Preds team was entertaining to watch in the back half of the regular season, and it was fantastic to be present among over 14,000 fans. It was an exciting journey, and even with the way it ended there were a few things that the Predators did well.
As I mentioned before, they did play well at even strength. Of course, this Predators team isn’t going to dominate games the way the Hurricanes did consistently. However, there were still times that they could take control of the pace of play and keep the Hurricanes pinned in their end. When they were winning puck battles, they were keeping the puck for more extended periods. They managed to keep the Hurricanes at bay and take the best team in the Central Division (by regular-season record) to six games. That in itself is a massive achievement for a team with almost no hope to make the playoffs in March.
Another good thing was Juuse Saros’s play. How could I not mention him? He was, for the most part, outstanding. A team that relied on him throughout the regular season ended up relying on him too much, and it cost them the series. The fans knew he was giving it his all, as before the Predators exchanged handshakes with the Hurricanes, the loud “Juuuuuuuuuuuus” chant broke out one more time. He did all he could, but there was no way he would be able to carry the Predators to four of seven wins against an elite team.
The final good things I’ll touch on are the performances of Ryan Johansen and Matt Duchene, who both looked reinvigorated in the short time that they were together. Coach Hynes didn’t look to their line for the first two games of the series, but they put on a show when he did. Johansen put up four points, three of which were goals, and Duchene put up three points, one of which was the game three overtime winner. Even when they weren’t scoring points, they were playing exceptionally well.
Duchene was consistently winning battles and creating using his skating, although most people, including myself, weren’t too pleased with his overdoing of stickhandling on a lot of in-zone plays. Despite the confusing plays every once in a while, he did what he was supposed to do: he distributed pucks well and created a lot of opportunities for his linemates.
As for Johansen, he was physical and used his body perfectly to win puck battles. His skating was far more urgent and meaningful, rather than just pointless and lazy gliding. He also appeared to be thinking the game quicker, as his positioning was excellent for most of the series. He put himself in the right spots to score, and it ended up paying off for him. He and Duchene were two of the most notable skaters simply by eye-test through the six games.
It shows in the statistics too. Per Evolving-Hockey, in the six-game series, Johansen had a 60.78 expected goals for percentage (xGF%), which was first on the team. Additionally, Duchene had a 55.77 xGF%, which was good for third. They were good on both ends of the ice, and those percentages are simply one measurement of what they produced.
Those guys needed to start to produce, and they did just that after being given ample ice time—and, in Duchene’s case, capable linemates that can keep up with both his mind and his feet. For Johansen, he always seems to come alive during the playoffs, but it was one of the many things that should keep him trending upwards.
The Predators, for the most part, appeared to have trouble truly controlling the play. They failed to cycle the puck cleanly and make more than two tape-to-tape passes at a time. It was extremely tough to watch, as the Predators in the third period of Game 6 had only 41 seconds of offensive zone possession time. Roman Josi’s injury obviously played a role, but that didn’t make it easier to watch or better for the rest of the team.
The Hurricanes’ speed and precision throughout the neutral zone was evident throughout this series. One of the Predators’ first and most prevalent issues was sitting back in the neutral zone and waiting for the opposing attackers to brisk their way through. Even Patrick Sharp recognized it, as he said that the 1-3-1 is an acceptable strategy depending on the situation. Usually, using it later into the game would be ideal, but waiting between the blue lines for the opposition to come after taking a one-goal lead in the second period isn’t the correct time.
It was something that infuriated me consistently when watching games. This team struggles to put the puck in the back of the net most of the time. The team kept scoring the minimal amount of goals necessary, sitting back and then relying on Saros to continue bailing them out. The team could have prevented it had there been even a speck of killer instinct and drive to score, but instead, we saw lazy neutral zone defense that was beaten most of the time by a simple bank pass off the boards.
This leads me to my next issue, which is lousy in-zone defense. Carolina is mostly threatening on the counterattack and the rush, but it’s a clinic when they get inside the offensive zone. They move the puck extremely well and move their bodies to coincide with the excellent passing. Their system emphasizes puck possession and playing keep away with the defenders. One player that stood out to me in the series was Jordan Staal. He owned the Predators in every single facet of the game, whether it be faceoffs (I’ll get into those later), puck battles, or even scoring big goals.
Staal’s game seemed to be an absolute pain for the lines he was matched against, primarily because of his 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame and fairly solid skating. He dominated every single matchup because he won puck battles and kept the puck away from whoever was defending him. He exploited the Predators’ weak in-zone defense constantly and gave the team fits all over the ice. He exemplifies what the Canes system is all about: hard-nosed hockey based around strong puck possession and intricate yet precise puck movement.
Staal just helped exacerbate the Predators’ flaws within the defensive zone. They got caught up behind their own net, lost or blew coverage multiple times, or allowed threatening players to walk right into the slot area. None of those things are helpful if you want to win a playoff series against the top team in the division.
No one ever thinks it could get worse, but it did. There were elements that the Predators did well. Then there were things that the Predators did not-so-well, but enough periodically to take the Hurricanes to six games. Finally, there were other things that the Predators did not do well throughout the entire series. The one that jumped out to me and many others was their inability to win faceoffs. Their faceoff percentage for the series was 48.3%, which is 11th out of 16 teams. The Predators and the five other teams below them in faceoff percentage are all eliminated, which could be a coincidence, but it does show how important faceoffs are.
It wasn’t so much their lack of winning faceoffs, but it was their lack of winning the BIG faceoffs. Players like Mikael Granlund were awful at winning defensive-zone draws, and it cost the team. The game-tying goal in Game 6 came from a defensive misread off of a lost defensive-zone faceoff. The defensive-zone faceoff came because of an icing, which leads me to my next point.
If you aren’t going to win faceoffs in the defensive zone at a high rate, you can’t ice the puck. The Hurricanes’ forecheck is highly aggressive, and it looked as if the Predators were on their heels on the counterattack. Instead of moving the puck to open space, the defender just flung it down the ice in the hopes of a player touching it for possible dump-in retrieval. A lot of the time, though, it would be too elevated, or an inch out of reach and icing was the result.
Fans, at times, were infuriated by this, and there were some faint boos in the crowd during Game 6, where the icings seemed more prevalent. It’s not an excellent strategy to be consistently icing the puck to begin with, but it’s even worse than the coach’s system has a primary play that results in so many of them. It is very important for Coach Hynes to change the way the puck moves up the ice on breakouts because stretch passes aren’t as effective as moving the puck out with possession.
The final issue that the Predators had is a fairly surface-level one, and something that even the least-trained hockey watchers could recognize. They didn’t shut down the Hurricanes’ top players. The key heading into the series was shutting down Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teräväinen, Andrei Svechnikov, Martin Nečas, Dougie Hamilton, and more. They didn’t, and it cost them dearly.
Aho and Nečas were easily the catalysts of all the Hurricanes’ offense. Aho had two of the four goals in Game 6, including a fantastic deflection in overtime to eliminate the Predators. Nečas had a deflating wraparound goal to tie the game at two in Game 5, two periods after he scored his first of the series. Both, especially Nečas, skated exceptionally well and forced the Predators back on their heels.
Svechnikov was relatively quiet, notching only three points including an empty-net goal. However, his impact could still be felt on the power play. His arguably elite shot was not one to mess around with, and the Predators’ penalty kill did all that it could to hold him off from potting one. Teräväinenwas also quiet, as he only put up two points in the series. One of them was a one-handed Sidney-Crosby-esque deflection in front that tied the game. The other was a primary assist on Brett Pesce’s tying goal in Game 3.
Hamilton ended the series with four points, including the goal that sent the final game of the series into overtime. He might have had his defensive miscues here and there, but his overall play was solid. His strong offensive presence on the blue line and ability to keep the puck in was vital to the Hurricanes’ puck movement and keeping the Predators on their heels.
All in all, not keeping players like Aho and Nečas in check while also allowing Jordan Staal to bully them to death resulted in the demise of this Predators team. It was hard to watch, as players like Saros gave it their all. The Predators were outmatched. The next step is learning from this series and understanding there need to be significant adjustments if this team wants to get close to the Stanley Cup again.