The Nashville Predators made their toughest stop on the weeklong road trip last night in Toronto. The Maple Leafs rode Frederik Andersen to a shootout victory.
When the Nashville Predators, down 2-0, finally found a way past Frederik Andersen, Colton Sissons‘ face said it all. Exasperation. Exhaustion. Disbelief.
When you visit the Air Canada Centre, you expect some challenges: the scoring ability of Auston Matthews, the speed of Mitch Marner, and the passing of William Nylander. While Frederik Andersen has been very good all season, I’m not sure anyone expected a 44-save night from him.
The Predators realized early on that they weren’t going to beat the Leafs’ netminder easily. Admirably, they made the correct adjustments to their game plan: commit entirely to the forecheck and shoot absolutely whenever possible.
One of the concerns for the Nashville Predators early on this season was their tendency to disappear during third periods. You say they shrink into their defensive shell, or, “turtled.” Frequently, this allows teams to claw their way back into games very late.
While Nashville has improved in this area from the first part of the year, the ill-advised strategy still lingers on occasion.
Still, by comparison, the Toronto Maple Leafs are a turtle convention. Perhaps because their identity comes from youth, they have a very tough time staying focused for a full sixty minutes.
From puck drop last night, even with a near-immediate power play, Toronto was on the back foot. In spite of the substantial possession disadvantage, they never once trailed in the entire 65-minute contest. This alone should speak to the performance of Frederik Andersen. However, shot attempts do not describe the quality of shots he faced.
Often, although they produce a fair number of shot attempts, the Nashville Predators struggle to produce in high-danger areas. Shots from the perimeter are fine for creating rebounds, but do little on their own to challenge NHL-quality goaltenders.
Again, last night’s game was all about bucking trends. Not only did the Predators produce more high-danger chances than the Maple Leafs, they produced a whopping nineteen of them. The NHL average is around eleven per game.
The impressive stats don’t stop there. As I mentioned, shot attempts don’t necessarily speak to the quality of each shot produced by Nashville. But when they create seventy-nine in one game, it’s fair to call it an onslaught. My jaw physically dropped when I looked at that number.
From the heatmap, you can see that Nashville outcompeted Toronto on a spatial scale. Nashville produced more than six unblocked shot attempts from the low slot and inside faceoff circles. Toronto was held to fewer than five from the same areas.
Again, this article is more of a testament to Frederik Andersen than anything else. A 0.957 night from a goaltender is impressive in any circumstances. Against an offensive performance like Nashville’s last night? The night of his season.
Top six firepower
The defining characteristic of the Toronto Maple Leafs is their top-six forwards. The fanbase, as retribution for decades of watching a bad product, is being treated to a showcase in offensive hockey.
The Nashville Predators, obviously, are known for their league-leading defensive corps. As Toronto coach Mike Babcock said (of Nashville’s defense):
"It’s called being better. It’s not different. They are just better."
That said, Nashville has assembled an incredibly impressive top six on the forward side of things as well. Obviously, without Filip Forsberg, it’s less of a world beater every night. However, these players can still produce in a big way.
By the start of the second period last night, Nashville’s lines were an absolute mess. Unimpressed by their production, Peter Laviolette ran the line blender until it worked on the scoreboard.
It’s not hugely productive to compare the lines from each team’s top six. Instead, let’s look at some of the individual players from each team’s top forward group, in terms of unblocked shot attempt percentage (FF%), high-danger chance percentage (HDCF%), and defensive zone start percentage (dZS%):
This is yet another illustration of Nashville’s dominance last night. Three of Toronto’s top forwards were pinned in the defensive zone an overwhelming amount. Predators’ forwards were free to play offensive hockey frequently, and used the opportunity to create chances at an overwhelming pace.
Tonight, the Nashville Predators need to prepare quickly for another contest in Ontario. The Ottawa Senators undeniably present a lesser challenge than the lightning-fast Toronto Maple Leafs. However, these games will thoroughly test the maturity and focus of Nashville’s young stars.
Nobody will be picking the Senators to win tonight aside from the Senators themselves. In other words, this is known as a “trap game.” If the Predators buy into the hype surrounding their own abilities, next thing they know, they’re on a silent flight to Montreal after a disappointing loss.
The Nashville Predators dominated the Toronto Maple Leafs last night. They battled hard against a nearly infallible goaltender, clawing their way back in regulation to grab a point from the contest. On the road, that is a perfectly fine result for a team that rarely loses at home.
The Predators and their fans should be nothing but proud of the team’s performance in Toronto.