On an icy winter evening, the Golden Knights looked to complete a season sweep of the Nashville Predators. The result? Pure exhilaration.
It’s no secret that Vegas boasts a dominant hockey team. Scoring depth, incredible goaltending, brilliant transition play – they can do it all. This controlled explosion is spearheaded by an apparent genius named Gerard Gallant. His coaching has taken this team from expected disaster to cup contender in half a season. Like many other teams, the Nashville Predators have struggled against the Golden Knights.
In their first matchup, Vegas simply dominated the Predators. They shut down the neutral zone, forcing Nashville into an unfamiliar, achingly slow style of offense. In their second matchup, the Predators showed some brief signs of life. Especially in the second period, both teams were going end-to-end with lightning speed. Of course, the result did not indicate an even contest.
Last night was different. I promise I’m not using hyperbole here: it was the best hockey game I’ve seen all year, hands down.
Giants of speed
On paper, the Predators and Knights are very different teams. I challenge you to find one person who, given the choice, would take the Golden Knights’ roster. However, on ice, the teams play quite similarly.
For both, speed is the bottom line. Nashville’s core identity comes from its attacking defensemen. Often, players like Roman Josi or P.K. Subban carry the puck into the zone, allowing forwards to establish themselves positionally.
Vegas, too, values speedy transition play. Once the team gains possession, they are immediately attacking the zone. Their ability to do this effectively makes Vegas a hugely entertaining team to watch, and a very dangerous opponent.
The game flow illustrates a back-and-forth contest. Vegas definitely piled on the pressure late in the third, but were unable to find the back of the net. Oddly enough, Nashville’s momentum came primarily through penalty kills. After sixty minutes, the difference in shot attempts was +9 in Vegas’ favor.
Here’s a look at some of the other five-on-five possession stats for the game, including Fenwick percentage (FF%), scoring chance percentage (SCF%), and high-danger scoring chance percentage (HDCF%):
Vegas took a decided advantage in unblocked shot attempts, with 57% through three periods. In scoring chances, or shot attempts from the slot area, their edge was even greater. The real story is in the final category, though. The Nashville Predators did a much better job at defending the low slot than in previous games, holding the Golden Knights to just eight high-danger chances.
Until this point, I’ve refrained from mentioning goaltending. Yes, both teams played incredible offensively. However, no performance holds a candle to that of the two goaltenders. Marc-Andre Fleury flexed his goaltending muscles early on, including a seemingly impossible save against Colton Sissons. Not to be outdone, Juuse Saros made several highlight-reel stops, keeping his often-shorthanded team in the game.
In the end, here’s how both goaltenders performed:
In shots against (SA), Saros had a relatively difficult night. The young Finn faced 43 shots, including 13 from high-danger areas, and saved every single one. Fleury, too, put up great numbers, allowing just one goal from 27 shots.
|Sissons – Johansen – Jarnkrok
Obviously, with two-thirds of your faceoffs in the offensive zone, you’re expected to produce offensively. That was not an issue for this line of three centers, who simply overwhelmed the Vegas defense. Hopefully (I’d argue this is unlikely), Johansen will not miss any time after last night’s early exit. If that’s the case, this first line appears to be more than capable until Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson return.
Turn up the heat
This game essentially marked the beginning of the season’s second half. Obviously, each win is still two points, but there’s a certain importance placed on games closer to the postseason. Currently, the Nashville Predators sit second in the Central Division. However, with the Winnipeg Jets just one point ahead after playing three more games than the Predators, Nashville appears to be in good shape.
For now, the emphasis needs to be on execution. The roster is more injured than it’s been all season, which will test depth players’ ability to produce. Defensive players need to take responsibility, leading by example in their performance each night.
The Nashville Predators are poised for another deep run into the playoffs. If the team can muster performances like last night’s on a regular basis, fans will certainly be treated to another short offseason.