As everyone predicted all year(?), the Nashville Predators are your 2018-2019 Central Division Champions. They didn’t make it easy, and certainly took advantage of St. Louis’ abysmal start and Winnipeg’s recent faltering, but by God they’ve done it.
In terms of the postseason outlook, I think winning the division was as close to necessary as it gets. Dallas plays Nashville very well, but I consider it a heck of a lot better than playing the Blues or Jets in the first round.
Of course, all that is to come. Last night, the Predators tallied their first Saturday night home win since 1974 (pretty sure that’s accurate). As an extra bonus, they took down their old friends the Chicago Blackhawks.
How did the game shape out? Are the newly-cemented lines still firing on all cylinders? Let’s take a look. Keep in mind, everything below is from five-on-five (no special teams included).
Although Nashville did most of its scoring with members of its top line on the ice, most of their possession advantage came from depth forwards and some combination of defensemen. Johansen’s line actually had a bit of a dull evening at five-on-five, especially considering their friendly zone deployment and avoidance of Chicago’s top forwards.
The optimal composition of Nashville’s second line has been a highlight of late, their game was somewhat dry as well. Impressively, though Chicago produced thirteen shot attempts against, seven of those were blocked. Even if it’s not a member of the forward lines actually blocking the shot, it’s a promising sign that Chicago was having trouble finding shooting lanes.
Nashville’s real highlight performance, at least as far as forwards are concerned, came from the third line of Austin Watson, Nick Bonino, and Colton Sissons. I remain skeptical of Watson and Bonino playing with borrowed money, but Sissons has once again proven to be a reliable source of depth production for the Predators.
Finally, a somewhat disappointing game from the fourth line, at least in their usage. In a night with a healthy 50-minute dose of five-on-five hockey, Boyle, Jarnkrok, and Simmonds skated together for just five-and-a-half minutes. Still, they managed to keep things relatively even in spite of having zero faceoffs in the offensive zone.
Last night’s defensive performance was something of a continuation from what we’ve seen in recent games. The top two pairings are polar opposites, and the bottom pair sweeps up the debris.
Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis have been a genuine weakness of the team for several games now, providing a worrying trend as we move into the postseason. Their offensive contributions have stymied, while they allow far too much from opponents.
Meanwhile, Mattias Ekholm and P.K. Subban have produced some of Nashville’s best recent performances. Subban is absolutely buzzing in the offensive zone, while smothering opposing attackers at nearly every turn. Ekholm, while not producing at quite the same rate, is continuing a very reliable season.
Finally, another reason for optimism. Dan Hamhuis and Dante Fabbro, while not dominating, have been a noticeable step forward from Nashville’s previous third pairing options. Fabbro improves visibly with every minute of NHL time, while Hamhuis provides essentially all you can ask for in a bottom pair defenseman. They played a healthy share of minutes last night with a tough zone start ratio, and still shut Chicago down well.
If you voiced concern about Pekka Rinne starting yet another game, you were right to do so. At this point, I think either A) Saros is still sick (this cold epidemic is no joke), or B) Peter Laviolette has decided that Rinne gives you a significantly better chance of winning games. For the latter half of the year, there’s an argument that B is not exactly true, but so be it.
Given his sixth start in seven games, Rinne produced a somewhat puzzling performance. He saved each of Chicago’s six high-danger shots, but allowed one mid-danger shot and one low-danger shot to find the net. While the opposite of what you’d typically expect, he did get the job done.
All in all, the Predators entered the locker room down 2-0 after a frustrating first period, realized they were doing pretty much everything right, and just kept plugging away. For a team that struggles mightily with overcoming adversity, the past two games have been a huge relief.