Hockey

Patrick Kane picked a good time to have a hat trick. Yes, the third goal was an empty netter but you know what? After the debacle against St. Louis last night someone had to step up and it might as well be Kane. This team needed to bounce back in any way at all, and this game at the very least shows that they haven’t totally quit. Let’s take a look:

Box Score

Natural Stat Trick

–The Hawks proved yet again that they’re specialists at blowing a multi-goal lead. Yet, tonight was definitely not as egregious as Saturday against the Blues. The Hawks played well in the first in fact, going up 2-0 thanks to Patrick Kane’s give-a-shit meter hovering around 6.5 for a while. Hell, one of those goals was even on the power play, so things were looking up. Unfortunately Kirby Dach took a penalty immediately after the second goal, and that led to the Wild’s first, but overall the Hawks were decent—they only gave up 9 shots in the first, had a 50 CF% at evens, and yes, they were in fact winning.

–That all changed, of course, when noted offensive powerhouse Kevin Fiala went off for a couple goals. He tied it at 2 in the second, the Hawks went back ahead on David Kampf‘s redirect of a Connor Murphy shot, and then Fiala tied it again. This is obviously frustrating since they cannot hold a lead to save their lives, but it wasn’t the ass-waxing they got in the span of just a couple minutes against the Blues last night.

Olli Maatta had a tough night. He got burned on Fiala’s first goal, which was a blocked pass by Kane and then Maatta just couldn’t come anywhere close to catching him. And it was Maatta’s skate that redirected Fiala’s shot and became his second goal, tying the game yet again at 3. The first was definitely his fault, if you can consider slowness as a personal failing (I can and do), but the second was just one of those things that happens. Again, maddening to see them blow a lead but it was such a weird situation there’s not much you can point to that could or should have been different.

–And besides, that luck came back around to the Hawks with Connor Murphy’s shot (there he is again!) that was crazily redirected by Saad going up and over Kaapo Kahkonen for the go-ahead goal. It wasn’t the prettiest or most coherent of strategies, but whatever, we’ll take it. I spent the remaining four minutes of the game gnawing at my fingernails expecting them to blow it again, and I can only imagine most of the crowd at the UC felt the same way.

–But, lo and behold, Garbage Dick staved off a total collapse with the empty netter than sealed it.

–Stupid Alex Nylander was on the second line with Strome and Kane, and he assisted on Kane’s first goal so of course we’ll now see him in the top 6 again until he has another night like last night, with 4,872 dumb plays being out of position. He was already back to his clueless antics later in the game, with a lazy dump-in from the wrong side of center that became a late icing. It didn’t lead to a goal and it wasn’t the end of the world, but it’s just more evidence of careless stupidity and a lack of awareness on Nylander’s part. All I can figure is that Bowman et. al are so terrified of acknowledging the short-sightedness of trading Jokiharju for this jamoke that they’re determined to shoehorn him anywhere and everywhere, as long as it’s not in the AHL. Nylander constantly looks surprised and frightened when the puck comes his way, and one pass to one of the most talented scorers in the league doesn’t change that.

So this wasn’t exactly a dominant performance, but it was definitely what the Hawks needed. They gave up a very acceptable 26 shots, and although their possession numbers in the second and third were underwater, they managed to keep their shit together even after giving up the lead twice, and it paid off. I guess the downside is that Jeremy Colliton keeps his job a little bit longer, but that’s a price I can deal with if it means not watching the hot mess express for a second night in a row.

Line of the Night: “Every time he’s tried that in the NHL it hasn’t worked—you’re not playing 18-year-olds.” —Pat Foley criticizing Kirby Dach for a nifty move that was well defended, because apparently yelling at the kids is helpful right now.

Hockey

There are few teams around that I can definitely say the Hawks will finish ahead of. And there’s only one in the division I can be certain of, and it’s this outfit. Or. to put it more accurately, if the Hawks don’t finish ahead of this collection of used rags and grill scrapings, everyone is fired. Let’s look in on this fine mess…

20180-2019

37-36-9  83 (!) points

2.56 GF/G (27th)  2.84 GA/G (12th)  -23 GD

50.9 CF% (11th)   54.1 xGF% (5th)

20.3 PP% (14th)  81.7 PK% (7th)

Goalies: So here’s a thing that Minnesota can’t seem to wrap their frozen brains around — their goalies were bad last year, and Devan Dubnyk has been kinda bad for a while now. Sure, .913 doesn’t look all that bad from Doobie on the surface. Except he had the best expected SV% in the league thanks to Bruce Boudreau trying to do everything he can to shield him. And he had the third worst difference at evens between his expected save-percentage and actual, behind Jonathan Quick and Martin Jones. That’s not a neighborhood you want to be putting down roots. It was the same the season before, and Dubnyk is 33 so he’s probably not going to jump forward at this point. The Wild got the best out of him, and now they’re going to have to smoke the resin.

Stalock wasn’t any better, and if the Wild are hoping for a .915-.920 that he’s spasmed out a couple times as a backup in Minny and San Jose, they might be looking down the tracks for a very long time. What’s so weird about the Wild is that even with this roster, Boudreau was able to keep them getting the majority of attempts and chances and severely limit what their goalies had to do. And they couldn’t do it. And there’s little reason to think they will now. Combine that with a distinct lack of finish and you get…well, make your own whoopee cushion sound.

Defense: It’s the same crew as it’s been, though they will get Matt Dumba back after he missed more than half the season last year. That’s not insignificant, and along with Jared Spurgeon that’s all the Wild’s get-up-and-go from the back. Dumba was on pace for his second-straight 50+ point season before a torn pectoral ended things prematurely. Spurgeon’s influence started to slip a bit last season. He was still ahead of the team rate on his metrics, but not by the wide margins he used to be. Perhaps having to cover for Dumba hurt him and they can set that right now. Ryan Suter is getting up there but can still economize his game to remain effective. Once again, Jonas Brodin will be solid but not much more. The third pairing will be some concoction they pull out of a steaming cauldron of Nick Seeler and Greg Pateryn and Brad Hunt and whatever other eye of newt they find on the ground.

Forwards: And here’s your big problem. There isn’t a first-liner anywhere to be found, so they’ll have to shove Eric Staal, the eight minutes Zach Parise‘s back isn’t a puppet show, and Mats Zuccarello up there. Or Jason Zucker and however he’s decided to pronounce his name this season. Or they’ll have to force-feed Kevin Fiala, the first version of Eli Tolvanen, trying to prove the Preds wrong in that he can be a genuine top six forward in the league. Can they conjure another miracle out of Ryan Donato? His 16 points in 22 games after being acquired for Charlie Coyle suggest there might be something there. But doing it in 20 games that don’t matter and over a full 82 are different matters. Mikko Koivu is 187 years old and wasn’t good enough when he was 27 to do the things the Wild needed him to. Ryan Hartman somehow has ended up here, though St. Paul tends to be the last stop for the bewildered and lost. No matter what kind of magic and voodoo Gabby cooks up to keep the Wild in the right end of the ice, there’s not nearly enough here to make it really count unless a couple players get some spirits to conjure shooting-percentage spikes.

Prediction: It’s funny how the Hawks season is being viewed as some springboard to better and the Wild seem truly and deeply boned, and there was one point between them. Yet the Hawks do have some youth and growth on the roster and in the system. The Wild have lottery tickets like Fiala or Donato. With the goaltending heading south, there just isn’t enough scoring, or close to it, for the Wild to get around a playoff spot. Maybe if it’s truly awful they can start over, which they’ve needed to do for about two seasons.

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Well, not that JR. Not sure where we found JR Lind. He isn’t either. But he’s been our Preds guy for a long time now, which disappoints him to no end. Follow him @JRLind. 

Most points in the West, second-best goal difference, the Vezina leader…is there anything to complain about in Predators Land?
 
As Blackhawks fans know, there’s always something to complain about, no matter how sterling the season is. Obviously, the Preds are very, very good and were able to sustain success from last season with a minimum of moves (David Poile’s biggest free agency acquisition was bringing back Dan Hamhuis on the traditional This Guy Used To Play Here Contract).
The acute complaint is that the Preds are on a two-game losing streak, just the second time this season they’ve gone consecutive games without a point; largely this is a result of a bizarre inability to solve the Arizona Coyotes.
The more chronic issue is the power play (currently 30th ahead of only…uh hi!). It’d be easy to blame that on the recent spate of injuries with Viktor Arvidsson, Kyle Turris and Pernell Karl Subban all out, though it was worse when everyone was reasonably healthy.
Kevin Fiala has been in a season-long slump (he finally scored five-on-five Tuesday) in what many expected to be a big year for him after a breakout season last year. And while he was sparkling when he was playing everyday when Pekka Rinne was injured, Juuse Saros has been mediocre in a lot of his spot starts lately.
There’s always something to complain about.
Seriously, how has Pekka Rinne been able to come up with a career renaissance at 35?
 
After his surgery and then missing so much time because of the post-surgical infection, it really looked like he was on the downhill. Then goalie Yoda Mitch Korn left with Barry Trotz and the overwhelming feeling really was that it was time for Poile to go franchise goalie hunting in the ninth round again. And then we all realized there wasn’t a ninth round anymore. Fortunately, Rinne had a career year and finally won the Vezina, signed a very team friendly extension for two more years counting $5 million against the cap (somehow David Poile got the guy to take a pay cut after winning a Vezina).
So I don’t know what kind of magic he’s working. The only complaint (and this is a weird one, I recognize) is that he might be playing too well, because as a Preds fan, you’d like his regular season workload to be a little lighter so he’s tanned, rested and ready for the playoffs. Last season, he played a lot more down the stretch as the Preds pushed for the President’s Trophy and as he secured the Vezina. Ideally, he’d get a lot more rest in March and April.
If there’s one quibble, the Preds have gotten 14 goals from Filip Forsberg but no more than eight from anyone else. Is scoring something of a worry down the line? Or is the socialist method of scoring going to see them through?
Part of that is the injuries. Arvidsson, who hasn’t played since Nov. 10 and is out for a few more weeks, is the guy with eight. Then it’s a jumble of dudes – nine with between four and seven goals, led by Old Friend Ryan Hartman (who I contend should just be signed to a series of one-year deals from now until the end of time).
Arvidsson’s absence has meant a rotation on Ryan Johansen‘s wing opposite Forsberg, which has included such strange experiments as Rocco Grimaldi. The STF line of Smith-Turris-Fiala has been ho-hum outside of Turris, who is hurt. Smith is inconsistent and Fiala can’t score. But, there are worse things that having one guy who scores 40, another who scores 25 in an injury-plagued year and nine or 10 who go for 15 to 20.
How is the power play this bad with all the weaponry on it? (please don’t turn this question around on us)
 
Who knows? Nothing seems to work. Subban is hurt and Ryan Ellis has had trouble scoring (at evens and on the power play), which takes away two of the big outside weapons. With Arvidsson out, the coaches haven’t really found a consistent net-front threat (having tried Nick Bonino, among others, down low). Eventually, it’ll click, we’re told, but it’s getting close to 30 games in now and it’s still 14 some-odd percent so.

Game #27 Preview Suite

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It was all lined up for the Preds last year. Coming off their first Final appearance, and after a big trade that supposedly landed them the #2 center they’ve always needed (even though they don’t really have a #1), and a career-season out of Pekka Rinne at 35, this was their moment.

And they fluffed their lines.

They ran into a team that did what they did but better. They ran into a team with four genuine centers and two that could claim to be #1s. Rinne looked his age. Sure, it took to a Game 7, but the Preds only got to that by having to revert from their style and basically trap the Jets. It could only work for so long, because Pekka Rinne for his whole career save one playoff run has been just good enough to get you beat. And so it proved.

Oh, and the summer had yet another Predator proving to be nothing more than a shitbag, which of course they’ll welcome back with open arms because that’s what they do in Music City. AW HERE IN THE SOUTH WE THINK HITTIN’ YOUR WOMAN IS A SIGN OF LOVE. YOU YANKS JUST WOULDN’T UNDERSTAND WITH YOUR FANCY COMPASSION.

Anyway, the Preds are just going to roll it back, with essentially the same team and Rinne another year older. Funny thing though, the Jets haven’t gone anywhere, the Blues suddenly look a little spiky, and the Sharks await whoever survives this cage match. The Preds very well may have missed their boat.

2017-2018: 53-18-11 117 points  267 GF 211 GA  51.5 CF% 50.9 xGF% 8.1 SH% .935 SV%

Goalies: This could be the start of something big. And by “big” I mean a controversy. The Preds have seemingly wanted to hand the job to Juuse Saros for a while now. But they watched Rinne have a renaissance starting in the ’17 playoffs and all through last season. They can’t exactly just dislodge him due to policy.

And yet he’s turning 36 in a month. He has the Game 7 full-body dry heave during the Preds’ best chance for a Cup hanging over him. It won’t take much for their to be a whiff of a switch. They nearly did it two seasons ago before Rinne discovered Ponce De Leon’s secret.

Which in one sense is great for the Preds. Saros has been excellent whenever called upon, even though he’s small and small goalies really struggle in today’s league. If Rinne stumbles, their season won’t be torpedoed.

On the other hand, you’re talking about an organizational legend, the longest-tenured Pred by some distance, and a fan favorite. A team leader, and there’s no telling what kind of effect turning things over to Saros could have. This seems to be a team that has cohesion, but you’ve seen it rip teams apart before. It’s one fissure everyone has to keep an eye on.

Most likely, Rinne is just good enough during the season to keep these questions at bay. But in the spring if something should go haywire, it’ll take quite the tap-dance for Peter Laviolette to negotiate.

Defense: Well, they had the best defense in the league, so no reason to not return with it. Or they did until the Sharks traded for Erik Karlsson. But this is still the strength of the team. They added Dan Hamhuis again to fill out the third pairing, and even though he’s a million years old now he can probably take 12-15 minutes a night and do it well. It’s still the top four that’s the envy of most of the league.

It’s actually only middling defensively, as they give up an average amount of attempts and chances. But with Ellis, Josi, Subban, and Ekholm, they create far more than they surrender. You can’t find a team that has more players that get the team up the ice from the back themselves. Ellis is here for the full run this time, which will help them stay at the top of the division. Sure, they need some bailing out from their goalie at times, but they also keep the Preds on the right side of the ice enough.

Forwards: We’re the only ones who think this, and no matter how much we shout it from the rooftops no one seems to listen. When Ryan Johansen is not playing for a contract, he’s playing for a lava cake. As I said in the Preds’ eulogy, he had the same amount of points as Jonathan Toews last year and everyone tells me Toews is clinically dead. Mark Scheifele kicked his ass up and down the ice in that series last year, mostly because RyJo was still digesting the family size bag of M&Ms he ate at intermission. There’s no reason to think that won’t continue.

The Preds backed that up by acquiring Kyle Turris, whom reports suggest did play in last year’s playoffs. I’m not sure where there’s evidence of that. Maybe I need decoder glasses for it or something.

Turris and Johansen will do enough in the regular season to make you think the Preds are strong down the middle. And then they’ll run up against the Jets or Sharks or Blues, who actually have real center-depth, and the Preds will have a real damn problem.

Other than that, it’s still the same crop of quick forwards who never stop working and basically run most teams out of the building most nights. They’re probably looking for more from Kevin Fiala this term, who had something of a breakout with 23 goals last year. If they get it they’re more than fine. If they don’t, they’re just a touch short on scoring.

Outlook: Here’s another thing to watch with the Preds this year. Lavvy is almost certainly past his sell-by date. He wore out his act in Carolina and Philly well before this, and his intense ways can grind on players. If things go just a little sideways early in the season, they could pull the rip-chord on him. The goalie situation won’t help.

But other than those two maybes, there’s a lot more certainties with Nashville. One of the best blue lines in the league. Two good goalies. Maybe not the forward corps most people think, but certainly one good enough to cash in on the puck-movers they have at the back. They’ll be at the top of the division and conference again.

But there’s also no reason to think that an encounter with Winnipeg will go that much differently. If they survive that, there’s still San Jose, who won’t be nearly as tested in the Pacific, likely. It looks like it’ll be too much for Treat Boy and the gang to overcome.

 

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Hayley is a contributor to OnTheForecheck.com. You can follow her on Twitter @ItsHalesYeah.

6-1 since the Kyle Turris acquisition. Clearly it’s all systems go for the Predators. What’s been the biggest difference he has provided?
The Preds offense has lacked center depth for so long, finally acquiring a 2C out of a guy Ottawa was running as a 1C is huge for this team. He was a renewed confidence boost they needed badly before the trade. Any time a new guy comes in and shakes things up I think it helps the guys who have struggled, work out whatever issues they’ve been having, and get back to playing their game. Turris has definitely taken some pressure off of Ryan Johansen, who was slow to start this year. Knowing that he has some depth behind him now should keep this team rolling deep into the post season again.
If there’s any concern, Juuse Saros has struggled in limited appearances. Is there a fear that Pekka Rinne might have to play too many games if Saros can’t turn it around?
Saros is young and talented, but spending too much time on the bench isn’t good for anyone. He could benefit from spending a few short trips to the AHL to get some playing time in. As for Rinne, he’s been a workhorse for this team for the past few seasons. It’s a role he’s comfortable with and thrives on. My faith in Rinne has not faltered, despite all the backlash he’s gotten the past few seasons. His play during last year’s playoff run and this season has shown he has one goal and that’s to win the cup before he retires. For the first time in a few seasons, Rinne is the least of Nashville’s concerns. 
Truly scary that Ryan Ellis has yet to suit up this season. When he returns do you see Peter Laviolette keeping the top two pairs as is and having Ellis on the third?
Being without Ellis has hindered the defense significantly this season. While Roman Josi, P.K. Subban, and Mattias Ekholm can hold their own, it’s left an odd rotation to the top pairs. Matt Irwin is a solid anchor for the third line but isn’t really a top pairing kind of defensemen. Guys like Yannick Weber and Alexei Emelin have not been great this season either, keeping either one of them on the top lines probably wouldn’t work out for long. As long as Ellis is healthy he easily slides back into the top two pairings as he should. I can’t see any reason why Laviolette would do anything differently. 
A strange aspect to the Preds so far is that while they’ve been consistently one of the better analytic/sabermetric teams over the years, this year they’re not creating as many “good” chances as years past. Obviously this hasn’t been a problem in actually scoring goals, especially of late, but is this something you see?
The start of this season was not the best showing for the Preds. While they’re not creating as many good chances, they’ve also missed a lot of chances as well. I think the addition of Turris and guys like Scott Hartnell and Ryan Ellis getting healthy will help the Preds create better chances and finish them. 
Now that we’re more than a quarter into this season, does it feel even more like Cup Or Bust for the Predators than it did before the season?
This is such a young team, I think they’ll be Cup contenders for a while. That being said the city of Nashville is ready for a Stanley Cup winning team, and if any Preds team can get it done, it’s this one.