The Nashville Predators suffered their earliest Stanley Cup playoff exist since 2015 recently, losing 4-2 to the Dallas Stars in hugely disappointing fashion. The Predators headed into the playoffs in red-hot form, following another exciting 100-point season that saw them take a second successive Central Division crown. General manager, David Poile insisted in the post-match fall-out of the team’s playoff loss that he firmly believed he “had a team that could compete for the Stanley Cup” on paper.
Frustratingly for Predators fans, neither he nor head coach, Peter Laviolette could put their finger on what exactly went so wrong after so much pre-playoff excitement, having become the first team in a decade to become back-to-back Central Division champs. So, we thought now was a good opportunity to try and make sense of the Predators’ failure on behalf of the city’s fans that are still seeking their first taste of Stanley Cup glory.
Surprisingly weak power play action
One of the most influential factors in the Predators’ poor six-game form against the Stars was their abysmal power play performance. They scored a big fat zero points from 15 attempts. This wasn’t necessarily a surprise to many Predators fans given that their struggles in the power player aren’t anything new. Over the course of the regular Central Division season, Nashville were ranked last in the power play again, with a mere 12.9% conversion rate.
Those who thought that their power play routines would magically improve in the playoffs were sorely mistaken. Despite Laviolette desperately shuffling the pack in the power play, they simply couldn’t catch a break. However, given that their offense was struggling to deliver in a five-on-five situation, it was hardly going to click overnight with a one-man advantage.
Ben Bishop’s inspired form between the pipes
Sometimes you just have to hold your hands up and accept that you have come up against a player in the form of their life. Dallas goaltender, Ben Bishop has been a hugely dependable figure between the pipes for the Stars’ faithful this season. Over the course of the playoff matches, Bishop managed to stop 206 of his 218 shots faced for a ludicrous save percentage of .945. That form is nothing new for Stars fans though, given that his regular season save percentage came in at the .934 mark.
At the other end of the rink, Predators’ goaltender, Pekka Rinne did not fare quite as well. His .905 save percentage was respectable but was put into the shade somewhat by Bishop’s stellar performances throughout the series. Rinne was even pulled after conceding four goals from just eight shots in the opening period of Game 4, which is hugely unlike the Finn. Although it’s hard to lay the blame solely at the feet of Rinne, there is no doubt that the Stars won the battle of the goaltenders.
Paying the price for a lightweight offense
Even prior to the beginning of the playoff series, few Predators fans would have predicted a goal-fest against the Stars. Nashville had the 19th best offense in the league during the regular season, but this was balanced out by having the third-meanest defense. Their first-round playoff opponents were ranked even higher, with the Stars’ defense labelled the second best in the NHL. This alone should have been enough to set the alarm bells ringing in Nashville.
The Predators’ top line of Viktor Arvidsson, Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen needed to fire on all cylinders to try and make headway behind the Stars’ rear guard. Arvidsson flattered to deceive entirely, registering a blank in all six playoff games. Meanwhile Forsberg and Johansen only managed one assist and a goal each. When you consider that Nashville relied on this trio to net them 39 points over the course of last year’s playoff series, this was very much a poor return. In the sixth and final playoff game, Laviolette even took the drastic decision to split his top line up in a bid to find a new scoring formula, but to no avail.
The Stars’ stingy defense
Combine the inspired form of Ben Bishop with the restrictive pairing of Esa Lindell and John Klingberg and the Stars had a virtually impregnable defense. All too often Lindell and Klingberg were in the right place at the right time to minimize the number of efforts at goal. It was a credit to them that most of the Predators’ top line were forced to work from the outside in.
Klingberg’s contributions at both ends of the rink should not go unnoticed. He racked up an impressive six points, including the overtime goal in Game 6 that clinched the series win for the Stars. If they can maintain their miserly defense and get players to chip in with points from all over the team, the Stars could be dark horses to make a deep run in the playoffs.
What next for the Predators?
Caption: The Predators’ under-fire head coach, Peter Laviolette
Ultimately, the off-season will now be a long and painful one for the Predators to swallow. Having hoped to go deep in the playoffs, it will take some time for the shock to settle in. Nevertheless, it will give Laviolette and his troops time to reset and plan for another assault on the Central Division and a potential hat-trick of titles. Oddschecker’s latest Central Division figures suggest that the Predators will face a straight fight with the Winnipeg Jets to take the crown next season. The Jets finished just a single point behind the Predators this season and even finished this campaign with a better goal difference.
Whether head coach, Peter Laviolette will be around to lead the team into 2020 remains to be seen. The 54-year-old was the first to hold his hands up and admit that the team’s poor power plays were his responsibility. Few would be surprised if David Poile took the decision to relieve Laviolette of his duties for next season. But, by the same token, it could be argued that Laviolette has won back-to-back Central Divisions for the Predators and should be given at least one more year to get the team to click at both ends.