Thoughts from the Tire Barn: Nashville Predators 1, Washington Capitals 4

Last night’s loss might have been a tough one—especially against Nashville’s former head coach—but were there bright spots under the surface?

With a night to reflect on last night’s game, here are some things I noticed in the 4 to 1 loss to the Peter Laviolette-led Washington Capitals:

Quantity over Quality: A Whole Lot of Nothing

We start with a familiar topic: shot selection. One of the major things that Coach John Hynes pointed out last night after the game was that by several of the metrics that the team uses to analyze their performance, he thought that the Predators measured out very well, looking at things like offensive zone time, overall time of possession, and other things of that nature.  Looking at the numbers, one wouldn’t be wrong in assuming the same thing—the game was closer than the box score indicated. According to Natural Stat Trick, the total expected goals for both teams was 3.06 for Washington to Nashville’s 2.72, so obviously Nashville was generating offense. But how did they go about doing it, and do the advanced metrics tell the whole story?

Even those of us who are fond of advanced statistics in hockey know one thing—it’s a tool to help you understand the whole picture and is better when combined with the “eye test”; it's not the only answer. And that was the case last night. Some of those metrics mentioned above might be a little bit misleading before you put them in context, and I imagine there’s going to be some things for Coach Hynes to look at when he reviews the tape.

If you look at overall shot attempts, Nashville had 72 shot attempts at all strengths last night, which is pretty impressive.  Compare that to Washington’s 49 shot attempts, and that would suggest that Nashville controlled the puck for roughly around 65% of the time (you have to have possession of the puck in order to take a shot, right?). However, if you look deeper into those shots, you’ll start to see a story that’s not too impressive.

Out of Nashville’s 72 all-strength shot attempts, 15 of them were blocked by the Washington Capitals. Blocked shots accounted for 21% of all shot attempts the Predators took. The story continued in much the same way—Nashville missed the net 21 times, another 29.1% of attempts that never made it to Washington goaltender Ilya Samsonov. (This does include the posts, yes.)

It’s not wrong to see the positive of Nashville’s offensive output last night—they did well to maintain possession—but over half of those shots weren’t even on net, leaving only 34 shots on goal which even had a chance to be a goal: just 47% of all attempts.

That brings us back to shot selection. Last night, Nashville entered the zone, cycled the puck a bit, and if they weren’t able to get a shot in cleanly from on the inside/high-danger areas, It usually resulted in a shot from behind the circles by the likes of Roman Josi and Mattias Ekholm.  Nashville will have to focus on getting higher-quality shots, because it’s hard to build up any sort of rhythm against the goaltender if the majority of your attempts aren’t even making it to him.

The Impact of Losing Nick Cousins

It was announced earlier this week that Predators forward Nick Cousins would be week to week with a lower-body injury. We haven’t really seen that degree of injury too often this season, as Filip Forsberg, Eeli Tolvanen and others who have been on the injured list this season have usually been either day-to-day or on COVID protocol (though there have been exceptions, like Dante Fabbro). However, Nashville will have to deal with missing a player for the foreseeable future—especially in the midst of this three-game losing streak.

Replacing the contributions of a player like Cousins will not be easy. His signing wasn’t seen by many to be very impactful, but since Cousins has joined the Predators he’s been an integral piece of the puzzle because of his versatility. Players like Cousins and Colton Sissons have been leaned on by the John Hynes coaching staff to be ready and capable of filling any role, and for the most part they’ve succeeded.

You can see how Cousins has been used by looking at his most common linemates this season. John Hynes is relying on Nick Cousins to help guide his line—whether it be anchoring mostly rookies, or stepping in for Eeli Tolvanen on the top line with Luke Kunin and Ryan Johansen.  Cousins has also been a mainstay on special teams: he’s spent plenty of time on the second power play unit, but one of his biggest positive impacts is on the penalty kill.

You can’t help but wonder if Nick Cousins being on the penalty kill last night would’ve prevented Washington’s back-breaking power-play goal. Having a team so willing to play shorthanded (more on that later), having a good penalty killer definitely helps keep the team alive in close games.

Coach John Hynes was confident in the depth of the organization when asked about filling Cousins’s role on the team (see below), but time will tell if Nashville can find an impact player like Cousins in the AHL.

The Stars Last Night Weren’t Big or Bright

One of the things that stood out most to me last night about the Nashville Predators loss against the Capitals was the absence of their big money players on the scoresheet.

Roman Josi, Matt Duchene, Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg…these are all players that have had spectacular seasons, some verging on career-high campaigns. Filip Forsberg, for example, broke a five-game streak of scoring at least one point in every game, so the past criticism of “Filip Forsberg is hitting a slump” doesn’t seem to be it. But I’m still hard-pressed to categorize Forsberg’s absence on the score sheet last night as slumping. That includes his linemates, Matt Duchene and Mikael Granlund, who, according to Hockey Stat Cards, were the worst-graded players on the ice last night by game score.

However, credit has to be given where it is due. Washington Capitals coach Peter Laviolette obviously knows quite a bit about the top six of this Predators team, and devised a very, very strong strategy that kept Nashville pushed to the outside, offering a lot of low danger shots. And Nashville was glad to oblige.

It is a strategy the Predators use quite often: get an early lead, protect that lead with strong defense and excellent goaltending, and then allow opponents to take a lot of low quality shots. Nashville was beaten at its own game, and it seems fitting that the former bench boss was the one to do it.

Nashville has long lacked the type of player that is able to take over a game himself and deliver a win with individual effort—and with the number of high-paid players having really strong seasons, the Predators have to hope that they can continue, step it up even further, and get the Predators back to their winning ways.

Other Notes

  • Filip Forsberg is, as we mentioned above, still having a fantastic season. Prior to the season, General Manager David Poile stated that negotiations with pending free agent Forsberg wouldn’t begin until after the 2021-22 season. However, Poile mentioned that he was hoping that he would be able to get a deal done with Forsberg and his agent prior to the March 21 trade deadline. There’s no doubt Poile is watching the price tag continue to rise, so the change in messaging seems to suggest that the Predators want to get Forsberg signed in Nashville before his next deal gets more expensive. That change in plans is worth watching over the next month.
  • Penalties continue to be the story with this Nashville team.  Hynes was largely pleased with the team's performance last night, but did not mention that once again Nashville racked up multiple penalties—going three for four on the penalty kill./

Nashville leads the NHL in total times shorthanded (175) as well as total time on ice with the skater disadvantage. Despite those numbers, the Predators are also the only team in the NHL yet to score even a single shorthanded goal.

Obviously I think Nashville has been really focusing on trying to prevent penalties, and we saw that a little bit in the first period where it seemed as if Nashville was playing a tepid game—it seemed they were making sure that they didn’t want to commit those penalties early, which resulted in a less physical game in the first period. Nashville also tallied seven giveaways yesterday—those unforced errors combined with penalties limited Nashville’s ability on offense.  However John Hynes plans on addressing the penalty issue, time is running out to get it ingrained in his team’s mind.