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Johnston: Predators played faster in Game 3 win

Former coach says quicker tempo, better special teams helped Nashville get first win against Sharks

by Shawn P. Roarke @sroarke_nhl / NHL.com Director of Editorial

For additional insight into the Western Conference Second Round series between the Nashville Predators and the San Jose Sharks, NHL.com has enlisted the help of Mike Johnston to break down the action. Johnston will be checking in throughout the series.

Johnston, 59, was most recently the coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, compiling a 58-37-15 record during his tenure. He was coach and general manager of the Western Hockey League's Portland Winterhawks from 2008 to 2014. He also has been an assistant coach for the Kings and the Vancouver Canucks.

The city of Nashville was the biggest winner in the eyes of Mike Johnston in Game 3.

"That is one of the better atmospheres in the League right there," Johnston said Wednesday, one day after the Predators defeated the San Jose Sharks 4-1 at Bridgestone Arena to get back into their Western Conference Second Round series.

While the fans that packed Bridgestone may have been the top star for the noise they made throughout the night, especially during the television timeouts, they were given a lot to cheer about by the Predators. Nashville played its best game on Tuesday, according to Johnstone.

"I liked the speed of the game in the first period," he said. "It quieted down in the second and became a bit more of a chess match, but I liked the speed Nashville wanted to play the game at. They were quicker on the forecheck than they have been the whole series."

Part of the reason for the change in dynamics was a change in lines by Nashville coach Peter Laviolette in Game 3. He made the decision to scratch veteran left wing Mike Ribeiro, who had one assist in Nashville's first nine playoff games, and inserted right wing Pontus Aberg into the lineup. Aberg, a call-up from Milwaukee of the American Hockey League, made his NHL debut Tuesday. Laviolette also shook up his top two lines a bit.

Johnstone thought the chances gave several Nashville forwards more jump to their game, most notably left wing Filip Forsberg, who scored a power-play goal, and top-line center Ryan Johansen.

"With the last change [of lines as the home coach], Laviolette can fiddle with the lines and spread his scoring out a bit and San Jose has to be more careful about which line they decide to check," Johnston said.

Video: SJS@NSH, Gm3: Weber beats Jones with a huge one-timer

He also liked the way the Nashville defense was aggressive in the offensive zone in Game 3. Captain Shea Weber scored the winning goal after moving into the zone to claim a loose puck, and Matthias Ekholm set up the Predators' first goal by rushing into the zone and making a nifty pass to James Neal for a one-timer.

"They have to play that way because it forces San Jose to defend and spend more time in their zone," he said.

Finally, Nashville's penalty kill was far more effective than it had been in the first two games. San Jose was 0-for-4 Tuesday after going 3-for-5 in the first two games,

Nashville did a better job of pressuring the points and contesting the half-wall play.

Improvement in the penalty kill, on each side, is to be expected as a series goes along because each team spends its resources studying tendencies and figuring out ways to counter them. It is much easier to make adjustments on the PK, which is all about systems, than it is to change the power play, which is a manifestation of offensive preference and has been worked on throughout the season.

More changes will likely be evident in Game 4 on Thursday (9 p.m. ET; CNBC, SN, TVA Sports 2). But after 180 minutes of hockey, it has become evident to Johnston that these two teams are pretty even in skill and determination.

"If you look at the score of all of these games with eight minutes left in the third period, it has either been a tied game or a one-goal game," Johnston said. "That's what this series is."

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