On the Backcheck: Notes on systems, scoring, and Tolvanen from last night

Taking a look at Eeli Tolvanen, transitional play, and the second power play unit.

The Setup

The Nashville Predators were coming off of a huge 6-0 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets that saw Juuse Saros get his first shutout on the season, plus four assists for Mikael Granlund and four goals for Filip Forsberg. The team looked good through the neutral zone after heavy emphasis on transitional play in practice Tuesday morning.

The Boston Bruins came into town sporting a very similar record to the Predators and looked to gain ground in the Atlantic Division, where they sat in fifth place, five points behind the fourth-place Detroit Red Wings (I know, I double-checked). I decided to take a look at Eeli Tolvanen’s play after this great article Jeff Middleton wrote yesterday. The second power play unit came up as a topic of discussion from the same article, as Jeff wrote that Eeli Tolvanen appears to be the only threat on it, allowing penalty killers to “cheat rather than commit to Luke Kunin, Nick Cousins, or Tommy Novak.” I thought it might be interesting to take a look to see if anything changes. And, if not, how would the PP2 perform? For laughs and continuity, I’ll see how the transition game looks as well.

Eeli Tolvanen

The biggest complaint about Eeli Tolvanen is that he isn’t scoring. Obviously, I’d like to do more than watch to see if he scores or not. So, I’ll be looking to see what he does away from the puck as well. One of the first things that stood out was Tolvanen being the first man in on the forecheck. The identity the team has tried to establish this season, if not “get back to”, is that of a team that’s hard to play against. Size, physicality, and booming hits are only a small part of that equation. A team that aggressively forechecks can harass and harangue their opponents into frustration, desperation, and exhaustion—it’s good to see Tolvanen, listed at 5’10” and 191 pounds, contributing on that side of the equation. Tolvanen has developed what I like to call a nose for the netfront. In watching him, once he passes the puck away in the offensive zone, he tends to make a beeline for the crease in order to be ready to mix it up in front of the goalie. Twice, by the middle of the second period, Tolvanen’s netfront positioning yielded incredible chances. Unfortunately, even with that positioning, he was unable to take advantage.

PP2 - The Second Power Play Unit

The Predators went on the power play for the first time six minutes into the third period. The second power play unit consisted of Eeli Tolvanen, Nick Cousins, Tommy Novak, Luke Kunin, and Mattias Ekholm. They made their way onto the ice with 30 seconds remaining in the power play. After a shot on net with eight seconds left, Alex Carrier came in for Kunin in order to transition back to 5-on-5 play. Nothing of note happened. It was really only enough time to get one chance at setting up in the offensive zone and that opportunity turned into a shot from deep to the front of the net that was swallowed up by Jeremy Swayman. That was the only chance I got to see them on the ice last night.

Transitional Play

Early in the game, transitional play looked a bit rough with the team giving the puck away a few times on the way to or through the neutral zone. Of course, once the Bruins had established a 2-0 lead, they shifted to a neutral zone trap defense, making it incredibly hard for the Predators to do much of anything through the neutral zone short of dumping the puck in. This continued to cause problems for the Predators as the second period progressed. Although the Predators weren’t able to put any points on the board, they were able, once they did fight their way to the offensive zone, to get good, high-quality chances. Most of those chances were single shots without much follow up. Part of this can be attributed to Swayman’s backstopping, but zone entry up against that trap defense doesn’t yield as many rebounds as it would otherwise. Ryan Johansen commented on this after the game. (See below.) The combination of the neutral zone trap and the inability to find the back of the net proved to be the difference maker in this game.