While the Nashville Predators beat the Florida Panthers, it wasn’t an easy victory. Let’s suspend the pessimism and focus on the positives for once!
While the Florida Panthers are not a powerhouse by any stretch of the imagination, they’re not without some great players. Guys like Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trocheck, Aaron Ekblad and more can beat the best of teams on any given night. So let’s forget that the Nashville Predators barely beat a team on the latter half of a back-to-back with their second string goalie in net who was starting his first ever NHL game. Let’s focus on the positives. because there’s quite a few and they’re worth discussing.
I chose three things I really liked, but obviously, there was more than just three. I just wanted to keep things reasonably short. So let’s start with an easy one, the new third line.
The third line
Ain’t scoring depth a blessing? The only positive to Filip Forsberg‘s injury is that it gives Peter Laviolette leeway to try out new line combinations. Well the Nashville Predators’ may have found a diamond in the rough as Kevin Fiala and Calle Jarnkrok have found a treasure trove of chemistry together. Not to be outdone, Nick Bonino has played his best hockey since donning a Predators jersey over the past few games.
The trio played a few seconds shy of 10 minutes together at five on five, and the results are incredible. They owned a 66% Corsi and Fenwick while being on the ice for 3 goals for and none against. Bonino and company also created three high danger chances (a third of the Predators’ totals) and only gave up one in return. There are some qualifying factors though, as the third line started in the offensive zone 69% of the time. While that’s a nice, favorable number, they also saw weaker, bottom six competition.
Despite any qualifiers I may present, just take a look at those numbers and be happy. I don’t know how long this line will play together but I hope we see them sometime in the playoffs. Scoring depth is the most powerful weapon a team may possess, especially when that scoring depth consists of Kevin Fiala. Make no mistake, Fiala is the straw that stirs the drink and is producing at the same level he has been all season. The best news of all might be that he’s only going to get better.
I’m mature enough to admit when I’m wrong, and boy was I wrong about Craig Smith. I thought he was over the hump and the worst was yet to come, but his play has been incredible. Smith keeps his feet moving and seemingly never takes a shift off. He actually kind of reminds me of a less talented, veteran Kevin Fiala, and as terrible as that sounds, it speaks more to Fiala’s level of skill rather than Smith’s ability.
Smith remained on the right side of Kyle Turris but saw a newer linemate in Pontus Aberg. It might not be the “peanut butter and chocolate” combination that Fiala and Smith were, but it’s no slouch. Smith finished with a 51.61% Corsi and a 54.17% Fenwick at five on five. He was a consistent threat as the Nashville Predators’ recorded five high danger scoring chances with Smith on the ice. All those culminated in a goal that Smith had a primary assist on.
All Smith does is generate shots, and in a league where defense is perfected to a science, those shots are extremely valuable. He’s a notoriously streaky scorer, but Smith’s play will be appreciated if he scores 40 goals, or just 20.
Shutting down Barkov
I wrote an article in the last week about the best lines in the NHL, and I stand by my rankings. If you read it, you’ll know that I’m high on the Barkov line in Florida. Barkov, Huberdeau, and Evgenii Dadonov can dominate and singlehandedly win games for the Panthers. The Nashville Predators had every answer for what the line could throw at them though.
In just over 13 minutes, the trio was kept to a 48.15% Corsi and 45.45% Fenwick at five on five. They were technically on the ice for a goal for, but it was that Yandle goal. Tangent: That Yandle goal was awesome and so cheeky, he knew exactly what he was doing and I hope Pekka Rinne learns from it. Alright, back to Barkov, the line didn’t give up any goals but did surrender five scoring chances as well as two high danger chances. For a line that usually dominates the score sheet, they were absent from it on Saturday. Let’s take a look at where the shots were coming from.
If you look above, you’ll see that the Barkov line were regular visitors to the slot. The good news is that most were one-off shots and that the Nashville Predators didn’t allow too much in the way of rebounds. Now, on the other end of the ice, the home team had four shot attempts in that high danger area which is quite unusual for the Panthers’ pride and joy.
The best part of this whole equation is that the Predators accomplished this despite no Mattias Ekholm. I thought that P.K. Subban and Ekholm would link up to form their normal shutdown pair against Barkov, but Ekholm wasn’t available due to the flu. It’s nice to know that Ryan Ellis and Roman Josi can step up when needed and face tough offensive talent. That’ll be a big deal in the playoffs when the Nashville Predators cannot match lines.