What We Learned: Predators stick to their game, finally break through vs. Penguins

NASHVILLE, TN – JUNE 03: Roman Josi #59 of the Nashville Predators celebrates with teammates after scoring a second period goal against Matt Murray #30 of the Pittsburgh Penguins (not pictured) in Game Three of the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the Bridgestone Arena on June 3, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

I have for you now an obligatory, bit-of-a-stretch country music reference as it relates to the Nashville Predators.

The team’s response to the first two games should have been inspired by Johnny Cash. “I don’t like it, but I guess things happen that way.”

There’s not much to fix when you utterly dominate the first two games but can’t buy a goal or a save, right? The decision to stick with Pekka Rinne in net was, perhaps, a little curious, but you can perhaps forgive an old coach his sentimentality as it relates to the franchise’s most experienced goaltender. Maybe, as Peter Laviolette said early in the game, it really boils down to getting a little more traffic in front of Matt Murray. And maybe try to stretch the ice a bit more.

But to put 64 shots on net in 120 minutes of hockey and only walk out of it with four goals and no wins? Well, hockey’s a funny old game. And sometimes that’s the only real explanation.

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Rinne is not the best goaltender in the world, but he’s also not “.778” bad, nor is the Nashville power play as feckless and one-dimensional as it appeared in both Games 1 and 2 and, indeed, the Western Conference Final. If you keep outshooting your opponent by 11 or 14 shots, eventually the goals are going to come.

They came on Saturday night, but in watching the game, what did the Predators really do all that differently? The traffic was there, to an extent. Rinne was still sliding around his crease with wild, unawares abandon, and yet the score went from an ugly 4-1 blowout to an uglier 5-1 blowout the other way. The Penguins bled breakaways and odd-man rushes. Nashville’s forecheck was back to its apparently lethal self.

Show someone a tape of the first two games and edit out all the goals, then ask them who won. They answer, “Nashville by a mile.” Saturday was the same, but to an extent because despite the same old disparities, it was in a lot of ways the Penguins’ best effort. They still got out-attempted, but only by nine, instead of 18 or 30. Outshot, but only by five, and not 14 or 11. Out-chanced, but only by three, rather than eight or 18.

Net positives there, but still not enough for the Pens. They continue to struggle on the power play, despite Nashville’s seemingly endless glee in taking dumb-assed penalties. Pittsburgh, with all that incredible talent on its top unit, is now just 1 for 13 with the man advantage. It didn’t matter so much when they were shooting the lights out at 5-on-5, but if Nashville really is going to look this good at home, it now officially matters a ton.

It’s also important to note that the last change helped Nashville a whole lot in Game 3. Sidney Crosby saw about 11 minutes of the Roman Josi-Ryan Ellis pairing and was hard-matched against the Victor Arvidsson-Mike Fisher-Jame Neal forward group as often as possible. In Games 1 and 2, his most common opponents were the same, but for far less time (only about six to eight minutes per game). Back then, Mike Sullivan was using last change and advantageous icings to put Crosby out against the bottom pairing and fourth line, to lethal effect.

Same goes for Evgeni Malkin, whose only real contribution matched up against the P.K. Subban pairing and the Filip Forsberg line in Game 3 was to take a bad penalty late in the game, not that it mattered.

Malkin and Crosby, two of the absolute best players in the world, were held without a shot on goal in a playoff game for the first time since they came into the league. So yes, last change helps.

Now, they say you’re not in trouble until you lose at home, and if Nashville can keep delivering games like this, then they’re not likely to be in trouble for a while yet. There are, however, some lingering issues for Laviolette to work out.

That power play, for one thing, continues to operate in a somewhat dysfunctional manner. It still works through shot attempts coming almost exclusively from the top of the circles or so, but this time the Preds finally got some puck luck. Josi’s shot hit a defender’s glove on the way to the net, and Mattias Ekholm got his through a screen rather than simply shooting it into a defender’s pads, as had been the Predators trademark in Games 1 and 2 (and even early in Game 3). Call it finally getting the bounces — you can definitely say that for the Neal goal late in the second period to salt the earth — but a little more dynamic puck movement would make you less dependent on getting those bounces.

And still, Nashville takes too many damn penalties. You absolutely can’t give the Pittsburgh Penguins four-plus a night on average and expect them to go 1-for-however-many forever. That Jake Guentzel goal to open the scoring early in the game is a pretty good example of what the Penguins can do well with extended zone time and Nashville gave them a man advantage shortly thereafter. If Pittsburgh could have stopped tripping over its own feet, or found a way to get Rinne moving laterally, maybe you’re looking at a 2-0 deficit five or so minutes into your first home game of the series.

They also need Rinne to be better. He’s a goaltender whose biggest skill in Game 3 was “being 6-foot-5.” He was spinning his head around all night, never seemingly all that sure where the puck was. His angles were, umm, creative. But he’s a big, athletic guy and he’s gonna make saves anyway because of it. Didn’t work out in Games 1 and 2, worked out in Game 3. He stopped 27 of 28 and didn’t need to be that good. Maybe you say things are just moving back in the right direction, but it was statistically improbable that he would be so putrid as he was for the two games in Pittsburgh. We know now that there’s no supplanting him from the net, so you ride or die with your face-of-the-franchise goaltender. That’s all well and good.

Then again, the Penguins are playing with fire too — not that they can necessarily help it — by letting Nashville run their show for 180 straight minutes and hoping to get every bounce to go their way for three-minute stretches here and there. This was the first game Nashville really made a point to stand on the reigning champions’ throats when they had the chance.

They’re still down a game in this series, of course, and the Penguins are the kind of team that can easily exploit one more bad game in just about any aspect. Fact is, the Predators haven’t played a bad game yet. Their goalie certainly has, but if he’s even pretty good, and Murray can be put off-kilter, then things suddenly become very interesting indeed.

At this point Nashville controls about 57.5 percent of attempts and shots on goal at 5-on-5, as well as nearly 60 percent of scoring chances and 64 percent of high-danger chances. That they’re still, even with this blowout win, getting outscored 8-5 at full strength tells you that sometimes, hockey just isn’t fair.

But one more game like Saturday night, and they’ll get along. Some way.

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: Extending Randy Carlyle was inevitable, but I’m still not sure it was, like, wise or anything.

Arizona Coyotes: This is the big offseason for Dylan Strome. He’s obviously going to make the Coyotes but there’s a non-zero chance he’s the best player on the team next year. Which, hey good for him, but that seems bad for the Coyotes.

Boston Bruins: Why wait to give Pastrnak the six years and between-$5.5-million-and-$6-million we all know he’s going to get.

Buffalo Sabres: The Sabres have five picks in the first three rounds. But remember, Terry Pegula wouldn’t call what they’ve been trying to do the past few years a rebuild or anything. Nah, it’s not like that at all.

Calgary Flames: The Flames frankly have a lot of improvements they need to make, particularly on the blue line, to be meaningfully competitive next season. Don’t know how possible that is given the current market.

Carolina Hurricanes: The ‘Canes ought to love Nashville’s Cup run, and model themselves on the Preds going forward in terms of both how their team is built and how it engages with fans.

Chicago: Alex DeBrincat still really seems like he’s gonna be a player. How did this guy drop so far?

Colorado Avalanche: Obviously Jared Bednar is going to get fired sometime next season, but there’s not a coach in the world who’s going to do an actual good job with this roster.

Columbus Blue Jackets: The good news for Columbus is they only have three defensemen worth protecting in the first place, and Zach Werenski is draft-exempt. “Oh no! We’re gonna lose one of Jack Johnson or David Savard!” Who cares.

Dallas Stars: Oooooo, Valeri Nichushkin could come back, and just in time to get screamed at by Ken Hitchcock for not backchecking 110 percent one time in practice. How lucky for him.

Detroit Red Wings: This really isn’t a Petr Mrazek problem. It’s an “everybody on the team” problem.

Edmonton Oilers: The Oilers definitely need a better blue line, but they’re running out of former No. 1 picks to trade for middle-pairing guys.

Florida Panthers: Just hire Darryl Sutter and be done with it.

Los Angeles Kings: The boy Alex Faust is a great play-by-play guy and I’m not just saying that because he’s my friend. This could become one of the best broadcasts in the league after a little while.

Minnesota Wild: Listen I just said the other day that the Wild and every other team are going to find it impossible to just trade their way to a No. 1 winger, a No. 1 center, and a No. 1 defenseman as a means of becoming an elite team. Chuck Fletcher ain’t the guy to crack that code.

Montreal Canadiens: The Canadiens are extremely going to trade Alex Galchenyuk for 70 cents on the dollar. We all accept that at this point, right?

Nashville Predators: Only five catfish? These people are getting soft.

New Jersey Devils: There’s no way they pick Nolan Patrick at this point, right? Nico Hischier didn’t have any sports hernias, baby!

New York Islanders: Here’s Gary Bettman talking about the fact that the Islanders need a rink, like, yesterday.

New York Rangers: Henrik Lundqvist says he hurt his knee in the World Championships. Don’t let any Swedish teenagers jump on you, that’s the lesson here.

Ottawa Senators: It was absolutely not the Senators’ time.

Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers are letting a player re-enter the draft after they chose not to re-sign him. Generally speaking, a 20-year-old forward who can’t crack a point a game in the Q is not worth a pick.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Nick Bonino being on crutches is probably not a good sign for his future participation in this Cup Final.

San Jose Sharks: Man, I love sports fans. This is a great, great question. Shocked no one asked it before this.

St. Louis Blues: If the Blues even remotely entertain letting Colton Parayko go, you gotta fire everybody. That’s a No. 1 defenseman. Maybe the long-term face of the franchise. He’s that damn good. You cannot trade him or let him go in free agency.

Tampa Bay Lightning: The Bolts think they can re-sign all their RFAs. Man, I would hope so. Losing any of Johnson, Palat, or Drouin would be not-good.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Just give Matthews the C already. We all know where this is headed. Come on, man.

Vancouver Canucks: The Canucks still say they want to bring Ryan Miller back. Why on earth?

Vegas Golden Knights: The Golden Knights are going to get approximately 30 draft picks from teams being like “we’ll give you a fourth-round pick if you don’t take this guy we like.” Love it. Twist the knife.

Washington Capitals: This is an amazing story.

Winnipeg Jets: Hold on, is there some sort of case for not-protecting Toby Enstrom?

Play of the Weekend

The Freddie Hockey goal…….. was good.

Gold Star Award

NASHVILLE, TN – JUNE 03: Roman Josi #59 of the Nashville Predators celebrates his goal at 4:51 of the second period against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Three of the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the Bridgestone Arena on June 3, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Roman Josi was crap in the first two games. He was awesome in Game 3. Credit where it’s due.

Minus of the Weekend

NASHVILLE, TN – JUNE 03: Singer-songwriter Martina McBride performs the National Anthem at the Stanley Cup Finals Game 3 Nashville Predators Vs. Pittsburgh Penguins at Bridgestone Arena on June 3, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Terry Wyatt/Getty Images)

Martina McBride, retire.

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Year

User “brock0791” has a trade idea that made me say, “Oh hell yeah,” out loud.

Toews to Winnipeg

Nothing else needs to be said. I’m way in.

Signoff

A child has already solved the Jumble using crayons. The answer is ‘fries.’

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

(All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)

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