Stanley Cup final preview: Nashville Predators vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

For one team, the Stanley Cup Final is the last act of a tragedy. The NHL playoffs are a zero-sum game, and to claw your way past three opponents, each time savoring triumph and glory, but then experience the bitterness of monumental defeat is cruel. It is riches to rags performed on the public stage. And it is a cliché, but history is written by the winners, and neither players, nor their fans, will feel any solace in defeat.

Even though the Penguins won last year, this is a categorical truth. Losing hurts, and the sweet memories of perseverance and success achieved through the journey become poisoned. Perception is a sliding scale. There is no such thing as a moral victory. It was all for naught.

The Predators have already encountered some heartache. They lost No. 1 center Ryan Johansen and their dynamic, skilled winger Kevin Fiala for the remainder of the playoffs, but in the face of adversity they keep winning. On paper, this is indecipherable and perplexing. But the Predators break convention, which is part of what makes them so unstoppable.

In the Predators-Ducks preview, I discussed how the Predators are inverting the power structure with their defensive corps influencing their success instead of a dominant forward nucleus and multiple mobile, skilled defensemen. The article highlighted how good Nashville’s defensemen are on zone exits, the turnovers they force in the neutral zone, and the counterattacks that are generated as a result. But their impact is felt over 200 feet, and with each Predators player injured, this impact is even more pronounced.

A standard model for a forward line is clumping one puck-handler/playmaker with another guy who is a shooter. The third player is the guy who can succeed without the puck – the retriever/do-the-dirty-work forward. Sometimes, a player will possess two labels; they’ll be both a playmaker and a shooting option. This versatile player still battles in the corners; it’s just not his primary function. In generalities, lines are constructed this way.

The Predators’ dominant line was the Filip Forsberg-Ryan Johansen-Viktor Ardvidsson line. For many games, those guys incinerated the competition. Forsberg was the shooter and puck-handler, Johansen was the playmaker, and Ardvidsson was the do-the-dirty-work guy. And yet, the next three lines reflected very different distributions of responsibility.

The Predators’ defensemen are so freaking good, they can assume that Forsberg role of shooter and puck-handler. Roman Josi can transport the puck from goal line to goal line, and then kick it out to Ryan Ellis for a booming slap shot. The uniqueness of that action cannot be overstated, and it happens all the time. Josi leads the breakout, zips through the neutral zone, gains the entry, bends the defense to defend him below the circles, and whips the puck to his defensive partner for a good shooting look. And if say, Calle Jarnkrok, Austin Watson, and Pontus Aberg are on the ice, you have three players who can create traffic on the Ellis shot attempt and retrieve the puck. That is their job – retrieve and support.

Nashville’s forwards get excellent looks because they have more space and can slam home rebound chances. Theirs is a complementary role. The demands of the job are energy and situational awareness, and it does not require that they display high-end skill on a shift-by-shift basis. And because of the way that opponents’ defenses are contorted to defend the North-South, East-West threats from the Predators’ defensemen, great scoring opportunities appear for the forwards whose accountability starts at a later juncture.

What the Predators’ defensemen are doing is different than the label of “mobile defenseman.” A mobile defender can jump into the rush, pinch along the boards, slip into the back door, and maybe skate out of trouble on an own-zone retrieval. Olli Maatta and Ron Hainsey are mobile defensemen. But neither is assuming the responsibility of Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. That’s the difference. Guys like Josi and Ekholm slash through defenses and facilitate for teammates, but they also beat opponents one-on-one and put themselves in slot/off-slot scoring areas more than most defensemen. Watch what happened here against the Blues. A forward brings the puck to Ekholm, dashes to the space just below the left dot, then slides a seam pass to Josi on the back door.

The skating, passing, and shooting of the Predators’ top two defensive pairs forces defenses to try to contain them, but this has been a lose-lose proposition. Try to overload with five men below the circles and Subban and Ekholm will blast shots into traffic. Keep a tight gap on Ellis and Josi by pressing up on them at the point and Josi or Ellis can beat you with or without the puck to the bottom half of the offensive zone. For three rounds, teams have come to the painful realization that the Predators torch you because their defensemen are threats up high and down low. If Forsberg isn’t on the ice, Josi and Ellis or Subban and Ekholm, become the first and second attack options on the rush and cycle.

What is most remarkable is that the Predators’ defensemen, even with their scoring prowess, still play outstanding defense. The Ducks, like everyone else, struggled to pass it in the neutral zone against the Predators. Part of that was active sticks and good gaps by the Predators’ forwards. But partially it was because the Nashville defensemen are unflinching about stepping up and disrupting opponents at the point of entry. And when the puck gets jostled loose, it can lead to a counterattack or a neutral-zone regroup with the Predators in their defensive posture.

The Ducks had some success with strategic dump-and-chase and with their defensemen skating it through the zone on the entry. With the Penguins, that isn’t a great option. Trevor Daly can skate it, and so can Justin Schultz, but mostly Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel will need to assume the lead puck-handling duty on entering the zone. Dumping the puck in is a terrifying outcome against Nashville. Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne is deft at handling the puck, and the Nashville defensemen are superb at retrieving the puck and leading speedy zone exits. There is a school of thought that against high caliber defensemen you want to wear them down with physicality and a lot of a cycle. That seems like a fool’s errand against Nashville. The Predators’ own-zone defense is a little bit too good, and they come in with fresher legs. Where the Predators are vulnerable is their transition defense.

The Penguins want to force the Predators’ forwards to pick up and apply tight checking to a four– or five-man rush. The Predators will get hyperaggressive on the forecheck, and they can afford that luxury because their defensemen keep the puck-handler and cutting opposing skaters in front of them. The Ducks had some success with their second wave of skaters, and Pittsburgh’s rush has been stellar all playoffs. Rinne has been awesome so far, but thrust bodies in his sightline and generate clean looks in space and he will look more human.

The Ottawa Senators almost beating the Penguins was fascinating on several levels, but one aspect that was particularly noteworthy was that this was the first series where the Penguins’ defense looked frighteningly vulnerable. They turned the puck over too much. Their gaps were saggy on entries. When the Senators gained the zone, they could calmly possess the puck long enough for support to surround the puck-carrier. The Penguins were losing races to the puck and allowing for several shot attempts in an offensive-zone trip.

Shooting and passing lanes opened up that were not available in prior Mike Sullivan-coached series. Some of this isn’t surprising. These guys have played an insane amount of hockey over the last two seasons. Some of the Penguins best players are absent or banged up. And that accrued mileage manifested itself in the Senators series, and not just with the defense. Still, this crumbling of the bulwark could not be more fortuitous for the Predators. They want to grind and initiate the cycle, and if the Penguins are slower to close on the puck, they are going to get better looks and more attempts.

At first, slowing the pace down might seem counterintuitive for the Predators considering they have shredded teams with their speed. But owning the territorial game, letting their defensemen create plays in a controlled space while the forwards battle and retrieve, and forcing Crosby and Malkin to defend at length is a net positive. Penguins’ goaltender Matt Murray is fantastic, so Nashville needs as much time in the offensive zone and as many shot attempts on Murray as possible. Moreover, a Predators skater is less likely to get a penalty in the offensive zone, and they need to avoid putting the Penguins on the power play as much as humanly possible.

Because of the Predators’ speed (especially on breakouts) and their neutral zone defense operating like a Venus flytrap, forcing rush chances seems unnecessary. Also, by letting chances off the rush develop organically, there is less vulnerability to surrendering an odd-man rush.

From the Predators’ point of view, the Penguins’ defensemen need to be given as many opportunities as possible to forfeit chances under pressure. Against the Predators’ forecheck, this could be a deadly vulnerability. And that taxing cycle that hems the Penguins’ offense in is the best antidote for the Penguins’ superstars and a good way to continue to empower their forward depth. The Penguins’ defense can skate and they can pass, but their efficacy derives from support. If the Predators’ forwards and defense suffocate them and takes away their outlets, they will crater.

So how do the Penguins puncture a defense that has been nearly impossible to rupture? That is best achieved through the rush. The Predators are too good at breakouts, and even when a team does initiate the cycle, their defense is so flexible and agile that they barricade those passing and shooting lanes or box out and efficiently ferry the puck out of the zone. Therefore, the Penguins are going to want to run curl patterns in the neutral zone that hand over the puck to their best puck-handlers and playmakers, and let them knife through the defense. The Ducks had success doing this, but it mostly came from their defensemen, like Cam Fowler and Hampus Lindholm. The Penguins are going to bestow those duties on Crosby and Malkin, and they will need layers of support on the entry. The Predators’ defensemen are extremely difficult to beat individually, even for the Penguins’ HOFers, but the middle lane and weak-side lane put stress on the Predators’ rush defense, which has seen stretches of inconsistency.

The Penguins don’t want to create races against the Predators’ defensemen, but they do want them backpedaling and off-kilter, and another way to exploit them is through a man stationed in the neutral zone. The Penguins love to direct the puck toward an idle skater in the middle of the ice, and let him pass or deflect the puck into an area a forward is charging toward. It’s a nifty mechanism for space creation and a great jolt to the rush game. The surging forward grabs the puck with speed and momentum and can either try to worm his way through the defense to the net, shoot, or stretch the defense and then find some support on the second wave. Regardless, it upends opponents’ defensive posture.

The first goal by the Penguins in Game 7 came by this means.

Off the faceoff, Conor Sheary got behind two forwards and the pinching Senators defenseman, but also gained the inside position on Derick Brassard in the neutral zone. When the puck came toward him, he was able to chip it toward Chris Kunitz, and that opened up the transition. Simultaneously, it created a foot race for Sheary against Brassard.

The Predators’ defensemen are going to step up in the offensive zone and neutral zone, so finding space to facilitate a rush off this neutral-zone handoff is a good way to carve out good scoring chances.

The Penguins also might way to assign a tight-checking line, likely led by Nick Bonino, to stifle, or attempt to stifle, Forsberg. Forsberg has been ridiculous in the playoffs; he is instant offense every time he touches the puck. His shot release, puck-handling, and awareness of where to position himself in all three zone is next level. But if the Penguins can diminish his contribution, it is hard to see the Predators winning. He is the constant in the Nashville offense, and unlike his forward teammates, his scoring agency is independent of the Predators’ playmaking defensemen. Having speedy, tight-checking, pestering Penguins forwards harassing him and trying to drain time in the offensive zone could be lethal for Nashville. If Forsberg becomes a nonfactor, the onus will be on the Predators’ defensemen to carry the offensive load.

The Penguins were the superior defending team against the Capitals. Washington’s success came when they made shorter passes on breakouts, acted decisively with the puck in transition, and simplified in the offensive zone. But the shoe is on the other foot now. The Predators will swallow reckless passes, and if there is too much deliberation on zone exits, it will spell bad news for the Penguins. When Pittsburgh gets clear looks in the offensive zone, they need to pull the trigger and avoid the prettier play. (If both teams are well rested, I do not know if the Predators would be better defensively, but the Penguins’ tight-checking play slackened over the last ten games and the cause is probably exhaustion.)

This series is going to be unbelievable to watch. These are unquestionably the two best teams, and their speed and contrasting strengths should make this riveting. Moreover, both are getting phenomenal goaltending, so this series is likely to be decided on a couple breaks. I think the Predators’ defensemen overwhelm the Penguins’ offense. I think it becomes evident Pittsburgh is fatigued and their defensemen become a liability. Winning back-to-back Cups is nearly impossible. The Predators get enough scoring to win their first Cup.

Predators in seven

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