Pekka Rinne and Ryan Ellis Image by: Danny Murphy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
The Nashville Predators have won nine in a row thanks to a deep attack, solid defense and brilliant goaltending. And when considering every facet of their game, there isn't another team more frightening.
All the Nashville Predators have done over the past two-plus weeks is win. Be it by blowout, comeback, shutout or in overtime, coach Peter Laviolette’s team has gotten the job done. And as the Predators work their way to the playoffs, it seems they’re dead-set on ensuring there are no questions about their status as the Western Conference’s top Stanley Cup contender.
In recent weeks, that status has been driven by the play of Pekka Rinne. The argument has been made around these parts that Rinne has made as strong a push for the Vezina Trophy as Andrei Vasilevskiy, and the Predators netminder’s case has only become stronger with the run Nashville is on in recent weeks. During the Preds’ current nine-game winning streak, Rinne has posted a perfect 7-0-0 record, .942 save percentage and has two shutouts. Those clean sheets came against divisional opponents Dallas and St. Louis, too. But the seven-game span is a small enough sample that some might chalk it up as nothing more than a hot streak. Sure, that could be the case, but Rinne’s hot streak spans much more than this recent Nashville run. Matter of fact, it dates back to Jan. 1.
Over the past two-plus months, Rinne has been the undisputed king of the crease. In 20 games, he has a 17-2-1 record, .934 SP and four shutouts, he has lost just one of his past 19 games in regulation and the only other game Rinne has lost was a shootout against the Toronto Maple Leafs in which he stopped 30 of 32 shots and posted a .938 SP. Others such as the Anaheim Ducks’ John Gibson and Arizona Coyotes’ Antti Raanta have posted similarly impressive totals in the post-January slate, to be sure, but Rinne is the only netminder to do so while facing as heavy a workload.
Rinne’s game has undoubtedly been helped long by the overall play the team in front of him, and the impact the return of Ryan Ellis the lineup has had in Nashville cannot be overlooked. In fact, Rinne’s brilliance over the past 20 games lines up perfectly with Ellis’ return from the knee injury that kept him out of action for the first 38 games of the campaign, and the Predators’ underlying numbers support the argument that they’ve almost been a completely different beast since Ellis slotted back into the rotation.
By no means was Nashville a subpar team defensively in the front half of the campaign, but in terms of possession, shot, scoring chance and high-danger chance rates, the Predators were no better than middle of the pack. From October to January, Nashville ranked 16th in Corsi for percentage, 14th in shots for percentage, 23rd in scoring chances for percentage, 24th in high-danger chances for percentage and 10th in goals for percentage at 5-on-5. All mediocre numbers, especially for a team projected to be a serious Stanley Cup contender. Since Ellis’ return, however, the Predators are no worse than ninth in any of those categories and the gains have been remarkable.
Take possession, where Nashville has increased its attempts per 60 minutes by more than five while reducing its attempts against by more than four, resulting in the third-best Corsi for percentage since Jan. 1. Or how about scoring chances? Nashville has improved their chances for by nearly four while limiting opponents to roughly one fewer per 60 minutes, thus rising from the 23rd to eighth in the league now that they’ve got their entire blueline intact. The Predators are also the most limiting defensive team since Ellis’ return, allowing a mere 1.77 goals against per 60 minutes, and their 61.9 goals for percentage is tops in the league since the beginning of January. The reality is Nashville hasn’t seen a decrease in any of the aforementioned advanced statistical categories since they began icing their optimal blueline.
The cherry on top for the Predators is that their offense, while maybe not as fearsome on paper as that of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Pittsburgh Penguins, Boston Bruins or even the divisional rival Winnipeg Jets, is as deep as any in the league. Despite having only one skater in the league's top 50 scorers since Jan. 1 — Viktor Arvidsson, who is tied for 48th with 24 points since the calendar flipped to 2018 — Nashville has the sixth-ranked offense in the league over that span. That offensive success is due to the fact the Predators have eight players with at least 15 points since the start of the new year, and the only other team that can make that claim is the San Jose Sharks.
Driving the bus is Arvidsson, who also happens to be one off the team lead with 49 points on the season, but not far behind are a trio of rearguards: P.K. Subban, Roman Josi and — you guessed it — Ellis. And now that Ellis has hit 20 points on the season, Nashville has taken over the league lead in 20-point players. All told, there are 21 teams with between 10 and 13 20-point scorers, but the Predators are the lone club that has 14 players with 20 or more points this season. So, while other top clubs have one line or a top-six that is to be feared, no team has ensured that each of their lines needs to be respected quite like Nashville.
And given the depth of offense, the play of Rinne and how Ellis’ return has influence the Predators’ play, it’s hard to consider Nashville anything but the best in the West as they eye up a return trip to the Stanley Cup final.