2019 NHL Playoffs, Long Read, Nashville Predators, Pekka Rinne, Peter Laviolette

Why the Predators Are on Brink of Elimination

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Things have not gone as planned for the Nashville Predators in the first round of the 2019 NHL Playoffs. After taking a 2-1 lead on the Dallas Stars, the Predators lost Games 4 and 5 in convincing fashion and now find themselves in a must-win situation heading into Game 6 in Dallas. With their season on the ropes, what have the Predators done to find themselves on the brink of elimination? Here are my thoughts on the topic, in no particular order.

Lack of Physicality

Entering the series, the Stars were expected to dominate the physicality battle. That’s unsurprising as the the Stars are taller than the Predators by 1.9 inches and heavier by 9.3 pounds. Because of the size discrepancy, the Stars have been the more physical team through five games. Using hits, an unfair metric because it’s kept by the home scorekeeper, the Stars held the advantage in three of five games. But the physical edge goes beyond hits. The Stars are more physical getting to the puck, when they possess the puck and in puck recovery.

The most glaring example was in Game 5 on Alexander Radulov’s second goal. Predators defenseman Ryan Ellis and Stars captain Jamie Benn were both in pursuit of the puck in Nashville’s zone. Not only was Ellis hesitant to engage in a physical battle with Benn, he didn’t even make a play on the puck. Benn recognized that Ellis was timid and hit Ellis before reaching the puck, creating room for himself. He then passed the puck to Radulov and the game was 3-1 in Dallas’ favor.

Perhaps the referees could have called Benn for interference, but it would have been questionable at best and it doesn’t excuse Ellis’ play. Ellis may be a smaller defenseman at 5-foot-10, but he has to stand up against bigger opponents to succeed in the postseason. Right now the Predators are playing like the small team they are, and it’s costing them dearly. Speed is great, but it’s useless unless a physical element comes along with it.

Can’t Enter Offensive Zone Cleanly

The most obvious reason the Predators are on the brink of elimination is that they’re not scoring enough goals, with only 11 through five games. That’s not enough. The main factor in their goal-scoring drought is that they’re not cleanly entering the offensive zone. During the regular season, the Predators scored a lot off the rush, often passing the puck as they crossed the blue line. In the postseason, however, the space isn’t available to make said passes and the Predators have been forced carry the puck into the zone or dump the puck and chase after it.

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The Predators’ issue is that their roster isn’t constructed to enter the zone with possession. While defensemen Mattias Ekholm, Roman Josi and P.K. Subban are all good at doing so, the team lacks forwards who can do the same. The one forward who was good at this, Kevin Fiala, was dealt at the trade deadline, and his absence has been problematic. Not being able to enter the zone with possession means dumping and chasing the puck. The Stars recognize this and are beating the Predators to the puck, resulting in easy zone exits.

New York Rangers Adam McQuaid Nashville Predators Kevin Fiala
Kevin Fiala’s absence has made zone entries difficult on the Predators. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Also Can’t Cleanly Exit Defensive Zone

Perhaps more alarming is that the Predators have been unable to exit the defensive zone in the series. During the regular season, the team was successful at forcing turnovers and getting the puck up the ice, often creating breakaways. So far in the postseason, the success they had in the regular season hasn’t been present.

When in the Predators’ zone, Dallas’ forecheck has made life difficult on the Predators. For one, Nashville’s defensemen have had little time to make decisions, which had led to mistakes. And secondly, forwards have had to stay in the defensive zone longer, limiting offensive chances during a shift. When the Predators have cleared the zone, the puck has often gotten no further than the neutral zone, where the Stars dump it back in, further extending shifts. Tired play has resulted in improper reads and numerous icings. Simply put, the Predators have been unable to relieve Dallas’ offensive pressure, and it’s taking a toll on everyone.

Turnovers in Every Zone

If poor zone exits and entries aren’t enough, turnovers have been a big source of the Predators’ struggles. They have had the higher number of giveaways in all but Game 4, when both teams had 11. They were even a minus-11 in Game 5. Like hits, turnovers are subjective as the home scorekeeper tracks them. Of the 20 Predators skaters who’ve played in the postseason, none have a positive turnover margin and only five are even. Ekholm and Austin Watson have been the most egregious, both at minus-seven.

Nashville Predators left wing Austin Watson
Austin Watson has seven turnovers through five games. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)

The team’s turnovers are occurring in every zone. The Predators know how to play safe with the puck. They were good at it during the regular season as six of their 18 skaters who played at least 500 minutes had positive turnover margins. The team needs to find that puck security again and regain their smart decision-making. It’s there, find it and utilize it.

Penalties Have Been Costly

The Predators have already accumulated 50 penalty minutes versus the Stars’ 30. Ekholm has had the biggest problem, already with 12 penalty minutes when he had 47 during the regular season. He took three penalties in Game 2, including an unsportsmanlike conduct, and two in Game 4, both high-sticking calls.

The worst part of the penalties is that Dallas has scored four power-play goals on 21 chances, including three of them in Game 4. Although they didn’t capitalize on any of Ekholm’s penalties in Game 2, they scored on both penalties in Game 4. When playing against a team like the Stars that features Benn, Radulov, Tyler Seguin and John Klingberg on the top power-play unit, limiting chances is vital. Entering Game 5 there was a focus on not taking penalties. The message must have gotten through, as they were only shorthanded twice, and that message needs to remain for Game 6.

Mattias Ekholm, Brett Ritchie
Mattias Ekholm has taken costly penalties all series, accumulating 12 penalty minutes through five games. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

Power Play is Laughably Bad

Is there anything more to say about the Predators’ power play that hasn’t already been said? They were last in the league during the regular season and have managed to look even worse in the postseason. They’ve gone 0-for-11 and haven’t been overly close to scoring. In Games 4, 5 and 6, they had seven total shots on goal while on the man advantage. They’re struggling to work the puck down low, are taking too long to make decisions and generally haven’t been a threat. At this point, declining the power play would be a better option, because right now they’re losing momentum on the man advantage.

Pekka Rinne Hasn’t Been Great

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Pekka Rinne is struggling in the playoffs. After an average regular season by his standards – a .918 save percentage (SV%) – his play in the postseason was going to be vital for team success. Given his past struggles in the playoffs, I’m sure most fans were apprehensive entering this series, and he’s proven fans correct. He was alright in Game 1 (.897 SV%), great in Games 2 (.957 SV%) and 3 (.952 SV%), was pulled after allowing four goals on eight shots in Game 4 and wasn’t very good in Game 5 (.808 SV%).

His biggest struggle has been against high-danger chances, where he has a .741 SV% at five-on-five after posting an .858 SV% during the regular season. Part of this has to do with facing more high-danger chances than he did in the regular season (5.4 per game versus 4.9), but Rinne still isn’t coming through when needed.

Pekka Rinne Craig Smith Justin Dowling
Pekka Rinne was pulled after allowing four goals on eight shots in Game 4. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Laviolette Getting Out-Coached

Building off Rinne’s struggles is head coach Peter Laviolette’s decision to continue playing him. Laviolette only pulled Rinne once, in Game 4, and it was too late. It was obvious that Rinne wasn’t on his game after the third goal he allowed, yet Laviolette stuck with him for one more. Backup netminder Juuse Saros came in and was great, stopping 20 of 21 shots for a .952 SV%.

That’s the same save percentage he had in four appearances in the 2018 Playoffs. Saros has proved over the past two years that he’s capable of performing in the postseason, yet Laviolette hesitates to use him. Laviolette allowed Rinne to give up five goals in Game 5 instead of putting Saros in net, despite Rinne not being on his game. Whether Laviolette wants to show loyalty to Rinne, is concerned about his relationship with the veteran netminder or doesn’t trust Saros, he’s made the wrong decisions this series, and it’s costing the team. 

Laviolette has also failed to deploy match lines even when playing at home and he’s making zero in-game adjustments. He is a great coach, but right now Dallas’ first-year coach Jim Montgomery is out-coaching Laviolette, and looking like a genius in the process.

Nashville Predators head coach Peter Laviolette
Peter Laviolette is getting out-coached this series. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Running Out of Time

The Predators may have entered 2018-19 as Stanley Cup contenders, but their play during the regular season wasn’t convincing. Optimists suggested the team was saving their best for the playoffs. We now know that wasn’t the case. This team is flawed and they haven’t been in control of their first-round series. The Stars have done a great job at exposing the Predators’ flaws, but the Predators are making life easy on them.

Their mistakes, which they’ve committed with shocking consistency, are glaring. With any luck, they’ll correct their issues and force a Game 7. However, right now, it’s looking more and more likely that the Predators will be experiencing an early summer.

*All stats from Hockey-Reference, Natural Stat Trick and Corsica Hockey

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