The Nashville Predators kicked off a four-game road trip in San Jose last night. The game should have been the easiest of the group, but resulted in an ugly, frustrating loss.
The Nashville Predators have four consecutive road games during the first week of November. Especially with the Californian trio, fans are expecting a tough week away from home. However, because of the challenge these games present, the Predators are in a unique position. A successful road trip can provide a major boost to a team. If the Predators can rise to the difficult opposition and overcome, their season will benefit massively.
Unfortunately, that message didn’t reach the visitors’ locker room in San Jose yesterday. Aside from generally sloppy play, two aspects of the Predators’ performance were especially bad. First, discipline – Nashville players combined for 33 penalty minutes from 12 infractions. Secondly, shot selection – the Predators recorded only five high-danger scoring chances, compared to the Sharks’ twelve.
I can forgive just one of the penalties taken by the Nashville Predators last night. Halfway through the second period, Filip Forsberg slide tackled Tomas Hertl to prevent a potential breakaway. That’s a pass-interference-to-stop-the-touchdown kind of penalty; unfortunate, but necessary.
Every other penalty was absolutely agonizing. Ryan Johansen‘s boarding (expect a warning from the Department of Player Safety about that) and subsequent “fight” were painful. Austin Watson‘s double minor after a missed call was painful. You simply cannot go looking for revenge when you are down two scores in the third period. The bench minor for too many men is always hard to swallow.
The biggest problem with taking twelve penalties is, obviously, the amount of time spent on the penalty kill. Specifically, the Predators’ defensemen who already have to play a truly unacceptable number of minutes. Mattias Ekholm and Roman Josi each spent over seven minutes killing penalties alone last night, in addition to the full twenty minutes each put in at even strength.
Let’s take a look at how the Predators’ defensemen fared while at even strength. I’m using time on ice at even strength (EV TOI), Fenwick for (FF), Fenwick against (FA), and Fenwick % (FF%). You can read more about Fenwick, which tracks unblocked shot production by both teams, here.
In all honesty, five of these players’ numbers aren’t bad at all. Ekholm and Josi deserve massive recognition for playing extremely well at even strength, after so much time spent killing penalties. Subban was, as usual, matched up against the opponent’s top line all night. Girard, who was projected as a scratch again, played a good number of minutes and had a great Fenwick score. Irwin’s numbers aren’t superb, but also not unexpected from a third-pairing defenseman.
Alexei Emelin, however, continued his recent string of very poor performances. Even against an aging San Jose Sharks, his lack of speed was exposed dramatically. He allowed turnovers in every zone. He did record six hits, but I don’t necessarily see that as a positive. Call me a wimpy millennial, but I’d rather my defensemen play the puck before the attacker.
The Sharks dominated another facet of last night’s game as well: shot selection. The Predators took the majority of their shots from the center point or further away from net. According to Sportsnet’s Andrew Berkshire, those shots are saved between 95% and 98% of the time by NHL goaltenders.
Last night, Martin Jones saved 100% of shots from those areas. The Nashville Predators’ lone goal came off of Roman Josi’s stick in the outer slot, where goaltenders make the save about 88% of the time. The real key is to generate shots from a “high danger” area, or the above-labeled “red zone.” Shots from this area, the low slot, are saved just 77% of the time, on average.
The Sharks were able to generate twelve shots from the high danger area in last night’s game. The Predators, on the other hand, produced only five. The issue becomes achingly clear when you pay attention to the Sharks’ goals. Three of them came from the high danger area. Pekka Rinne saved nine out of twelve shots from this area, or 75%. In this heatmap, you’ll be able to see exactly what I’m talking about (be sure to select “All,” as it defaults to 5v5).
What does all of this mean? Rinne performed exactly as expected when faced with high danger shots. His team simply allowed too many of them, and it showed in the final scoreline.
The good news for the Predators is that these issues are easy to isolate. Penalties are fixable with good coaching. Focus on playing the puck, not the man, and shorthanded time will decrease immensely. When defending, lock down the slot and force shots from the outside. Shots on goal are perfectly fine, so long as they come from low-danger areas.
On Friday, the Predators travel to Anaheim to play a Ducks team ravaged by injuries. While it is still very early in the season, this game is approaching must-win status.
The Nashville Predators must figure out how to win on the road soon. Otherwise, the team had better get comfortable being a Western Conference wild card.