Ryan Ellis made defensive partner Mattias Ekholm knock on the wood of his locker stall when talking about the duo’s streak of not allowing goals. The young blueliners have not both been on the ice for an opposition’s goal in 10-straight games, a feat, that at least for today, Ellis ascribed partially to luck.
Fortunately for Ekholm and Ellis, the players’ success found in the midst of the National Hockey League’s No. 1 defense owned by the Nashville Predators has a lot more to do with their play on the ice than any other extraneous factors.
“I think we’ve added minutes because we’ve been stronger defensively,” Ellis said of his pairing with Ekholm. “We’re starting to prove ourselves and earn the trust that everyone wants. Especially protecting in our own end, we know that’s our No. 1 job. We try to contribute offensively whenever too. The added experience each game and that adjustment has helped earn the trust of the coaches.”
Ellis and Ekholm’s minutes have increased steadily over the slate of 24 games with the pair now regularly hitting 20 minutes and seeing time against opponents’ top forward lines. With both D-men in just their second-full NHL seasons, Ellis says the promotion to Nashville’s second defensive pairing is significant.
Both blueliners have been pigeonholed as offensive-only defensemen early in their careers, but the pair agree that their role in Nashville’s D corps has expanded due to their growth on the defensive side of the puck.
“I think we’ve been sound defensively, and that’s what we put first in our game,” Ekholm said. “We try to put defense first before offense and never cheat. In every situation, we help each other out and cover for the other one...I think in the past we were only supposed to be ‘offensive guys,’ but that has changed.”
“Overall, I think we’re developing into the two-way defensemen our team needs,” Ellis said. “Ekholm skates well and makes good plays up ice. I think we both make good first passes and we get excited to join the rush. We’re both two guys that like to jump and join the rush, but we know defense has to come first.”
The pair’s place in Nashville’s defense wouldn’t be nearly as significant if the unit as a whole wasn’t thriving, pacing the Preds to a goals-against average of 1.96 per game - the best mark in the NHL. Like Ellis said, the focus on defensive zone responsibility has fast tracked the maturation process of the pairing who are now a two-way threat for their team.
With a 23-year-old Ellis and Ekholm at 24, this level of production from players of their age is not something many NHL teams hold.
“They’re just both good, young players and they keep getting better,” Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne said. “When you play more minutes, that comfort and confidence level rises, and I can see that from them. When they’re on the ice, they’re making plays and strong first passes. They’re working to keep it simple, but when they can use their speed and their skill then they do…With both of those guys it’s really easy [for us to work together] because they talk so much, and they want to help the other one on the ice. It’s fun to watch those guys play.”
Ellis and Ekholm return the goaltender’s compliment by saying their jobs are easier because of Rinne in the crease behind them; and with the Finn tied for the League lead in victories, they’re smart to do so.
“Whether you’re playing 15 minutes a night or 30 minutes, we all know our roles on the defense and we try to complete them,” Ellis said. “Peks has been great all year and we try to let him do whatever he needs to do. He’s so good with the puck that we trust his instincts and he makes our job really easy. He’s helped [me and Ekholm] get better too.”
First-year Predators Head Coach Peter Laviolette has complimented the pair especially over the last few games, but perhaps more telling has been the ice time with which he’s rewarded Ekholm and Ellis. And with the streak of defensive success displayed by the pair, it only makes sense.
“Like [Ellis and Ekholm have done], any time you can make an impact 5-on-5 and on the special teams then you’re really helping your team,” Laviolette said.
Maybe soon the two will admit it’s a lot more than luck that’s given them a strong season to date.
“I don’t want to jinx us our anything, but the chemistry we’ve found and a focus on defense has really helped us this year,” Ekholm said. “If we keep working on our game every day and talking to each other as we practice, we know that we can still be even more comfortable and successful. We want to be out on the ice against the opponent’s first line even more than we already are.”