Psst … the Predators are for real
After we published our experts picks for the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs last week, an executive with the Nashville Predators emailed me to ask if we had perhaps “lost” his team’s logo. It was a not-so-subtle jab at the fact not one of the ESPN prognosticators picked the Predators to defeat the Central Division champion Chicago Blackhawks.
Rest assured, no one is overlooking the Predators now, in the wake of their stunning, first-round sweep of top-seeded Chicago — a series that saw the wild-card Predators limit the powerful Blackhawks to three goals over four games.
Here’s a Predators Primer:
P.K. has been more than OK
Let’s start with P.K. Subban, the smooth-skating defenseman who arrived in Nashville last summer amid tremendous fanfare after being acquired from the Montreal Canadiens in a blockbuster exchange for longtime Predators captain Shea Weber.
It wasn’t all roses in Nashville at first for Subban, a former Norris Trophy winner. He missed 16 games in the first half of the season with an upper-body injury and struggled at first to adjust to a new system. Yet, Subban still ended up with 40 points in 66 games during the regular season. He added two assists in the first round, but what caught Predators broadcast analyst Stu Grimson‘s eye was Subban’s play at both ends of the ice. “P.K. Subban dialed his game up in this series,” Grimson, a longtime NHLer, said on Friday. “I was really impressed.”
Johansen is a center worth your attention
Given the drama of the Subban/Weber deal, it’s been easy to overlook the other whopper trade that Nashville GM David Poile consummated last season — the acquisition of center Ryan Johansen from the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for blue-chip defensive prospect Seth Jones in January 2016. It’s the kind of deal that had the potential to be a game-changer for both franchises. (Columbus was knocked out of the playoffs on Thursday by the Pittsburgh Penguins.)
Once upon a time, some critics suggested that Johansen was too laid back to be a franchise center. I doubt many folks are saying that now, after the 24-year-old paced the Predators with six points in four games against Chicago. Johansen particularly impressed Grimson by rising to the challenge of playing against Blackhawks captain and three-time Cup winner Jonathan Toews, who finished with just one goal and one assist in the series. Johansen neutralized Toews in the defensive zone and then created chances by physically outworking him in the offensive zone, Grimson said.
During a lunch with Johansen earlier this season, he told me how he idolized San Jose Sharks great Joe Thornton. I saw a lot of Thornton in Johansen’s game during the first round, as Johansen used his big, 6-foot-3, 218-pound body to keep possession of the puck and then distributed it like a magician, racking up five assists. That production shouldn’t have been a surprise, given that his two wingers — Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson — have been feasting on Johansen’s passes all season. They collected 31 regular-season goals apiece and then each added two more during the first round.
Forsberg’s prolific production was not a surprise. A former first-round pick of the Washington Capitals (11th overall in 2012), he represents one of the great lopsided trades in recent memory. The Predators acquired Forsberg from the Capitals for Martin Erat and Michael Latta in 2013. He may be streaky, but the 22-year-old Swede is a sniper.
Arvidsson is the real renaissance revelation on this team. He was selected 112th overall in 2014, but has evolved into a top-flight offensive threat this season — in part because “his feet are constantly moving,” said Grimson. Arvidsson, 24, was also the recipient of perhaps the hardest check thrown in the first round early, a huge hit courtesy of Chicago’s Duncan Keith that sent Arvidsson’s helmet flying. “And he was almost back up on his feet before the seat of his pants hit the ice,” Grimson said. “You can’t shut the guy down.”
The defense doesn’t rest
When you limit a team like Chicago — which racked up 109 regular-season points — to three goals in four games, it’s a testament to your defensive depth. That defense was what led so many observers to predict big things for the Predators last fall. It took longer than most expected for them to get into a rhythm this season, but this group — which includes Subban, offensive catalyst Roman Josi, the emerging Ryan Ellis, big-bodied Mattias Ekholm and steady veterans Matt Irwin and Yannick Weber — were machine-like against Chicago. “They just don’t give you a lot,” said Grimson. While the Blackhawks averaged 31 shots per game, most of their attack was kept to the perimeter.
The puck stops with Pekka
Of course, when the talented Blackhawks did get quality shots, there was the brick wall — otherwise known as Pekka Rinne — tending the Nashville goal and thwarting almost every attempt. Rinne, a three-time finalist for the Vezina Trophy, stopped 123 of 126 shots directed his way. What makes this performance even more impressive is that the soft-spoken 34-year-old has struggled during the past couple of seasons with consistency, both during the regular season and in the playoffs. He has had no such issues so far this spring. One longtime NHL scout told me that he was impressed with the Predators’ overall devotion to detail, but that Rinne is a nice insurance policy when there are breakdowns.
Even in this Age of Youth, experience matters
The prominent narrative of the first round of the playoffs has been whether talented but youthful lineups can have success in the postseason. The Edmonton Oilers and Toronto Maple Leafs have answered in the affirmative so far. But one of the keys to the Preds’ early success, according to Grimson, has been their maturity and experience. He credits veteran head coach Peter Laviolette — who became just the second U.S.-born NHL head coach to reach the 500-win plateau when he did so earlier this season and who guided the Carolina Hurricanes to a Stanley Cup championship in 2006 — with keeping his troops grounded
“He’s very effective at communicating tone, tempo, approach,” Grimson said.
Of Predators players who appeared in all four games of the first round, only three did not record a point. That depth should keep them in good stead moving forward.
They accomplished something special in sweeping Chicago. “But they’re not a group that’s going to enter the next round with their head in the clouds,” Grimson said.