Nashville’s team identity is its strong defensive play. With Vezina finalist Pekka Rinne in net and All-Star defensemen Ryan Suter and Shea Weber anchoring the d-corps, along with a bevy of solid two-way forwards, the Preds were built to grind out low-scoring tight checking games.
The Preds are at their best when the team is talking defense. It fueled the team’s torrid run through December and January. Nashville also used that system to perfection in dispatching the Detroit Red Wings in Round 1 of the playoffs, limiting the Wings offense to just nine goals in five games to claim the series four games to one. During the Detroit series Nashville did a great job of beating the Wings offensive players to the prime areas of the ice and winning the battles for the loose pucks in the defensive zone --- or at the very least not allowing Detroit to cleanly win the races for loose pucks.
Through the first two games of the Round 2 series against Phoenix, Nashville has uncharacteristically strayed from its defensive mentality.
“We know what we have to correct, it’s just about getting it done,” Coach Trotz said on Monday. “We’re getting beat by a little bit of our own formula: some good goaltending, a healthy dose of team defense, and a healthy dose of work ethic. We have to get that back in our game a little bit.”
After Game 2 on Sunday night, the Preds players and coaches all said that needs to change. There appears to be a universal understanding in the locker room that the team is at its best when it is playing sound defensive hockey and creating its offensive flurries within the framework of the defensive coverage. The Preds have enough talented offensive players to create offense within that system; they were the eighth highest scoring offense in the league during the regular season and netted at least three goals in five of the seven games during the post-season.
“I just think we are not committed to playing defense,” Ryan Suter said in the locker room after Game 2. “We’re trying to run and gun and that’s not how we’ve gotten to this point. We have to get back to focusing on playing defense, playing in our own end and the offense will come. When you score three goals a game that should give you a good chance to win every night.”
The challenge for the Preds during this two-day break in games is to re-establish that identity. The forwards all committed to one-on-one battles for loose pucks, especially in the defensive end, and the team’s defensemen stayed patient, choosing wisely when to join the offense and when to hang back and remain in defensive position. In Round 1, the Spaling, Bourque, Hornqvist line gave the Preds that ID, followed up with strong shifts from the Gaustad, Halischuk, Yip trio.
Bourque was moved to Legwand’s line, a switch that provided big dividends in Games 4 and 5 against Detroit. Then Halischuk got dinged up and was replaced in the lineup first by Smith and then by Wilson, two guys who bring more of an offensive focus to the forward group.
So far Nashville has struggled to regain that forechecking presence during this series against Phoenix. Coach Trotz hinted at potential lineup changes and re-juggling of line combos; it wouldn’t be surprising to see the staff create at least one energy line, like the third and fourth lines that opened the Detroit series.
On the positive side, with Rinne in net and the depth of the team’s skaters, when the Preds are playing their style of hockey, the team is always a threat to rip off a four-game winning streak and claim any playoff series.
“Things are tough and it’s about getting out of it and it’s about coming together as a group,” Mike Fisher said. “We know playing at home we’ve done a good job all year; we won three in a row (to close out the series) against Detroit, why not do it against Phoenix.”