A lot of one-goal games have decided the Nashville Predators season. A whole lot.
Through 28 games, the club has seen 18 of their contests decided by a single goal, and they’ve won 12 of them. The fine line of success is a sign of the growing parity in the National Hockey League to be sure, but also a testament to the Preds ability to close out tight games in which they hold the lead.
Owning the League’s leader in wins between the pipes and a top-ranked rookie has made the Predators best start to a season ever a possibility, but a less glamorous factor has also done its fair share.
The age-old hockey term of rolling four lines - meaning to consistently change forwards rather than heavily leaning on the top two units to log minutes - has also enabled Nashville to execute their system and team-focused game plan.
“All of our games have been close,” first-year Predators Head Coach Peter Laviolette said. “If anything, we’ve been a goal up most of the time. When we’re a goal down, we might change the roles a little bit. But for the most part, we’ve been in most contests. They’ve been relatively close and that has allowed us to play with a high energy level and roll four lines on a consistent basis.”
It hasn’t been uncommon to see the club’s third or fourth lines on the ice in the most important moments, such as nursing a one-goal advantage against some of the Western Conference’s best teams. It is, however, rare for other teams to employ quite this same strategy, like Nashville has done. Usually, it is only the top-flight point producers and highest-paid veterans that hear their number called in a game’s most perilous instances.
The Preds say that involving a larger share of their forwards helps not only to boost confidence but buy-in from the team’s offensive bunch.
“When you have just two lines going then you’re leaving half of your forwards trying to work their way into the game flow,” Colin Wilson said. “It’s hard for your third and fourth lines to get into it if they’re missing shifts. To be able to roll lines keeps guys rested and everyone in the game. And that helps turn things into a team-type atmosphere.”
“We can roll four lines and still have guys out of the lineup, that shows we have a lot of depth,” Olli Jokinen said. “We have a very ‘team-focused’ effort here, and having everyone contribute helps with that buy-in...With defense being the biggest strength on our team, it shows that every line has been willing to stick to playing our system.”
With Laviolette sprinkling his lines with both play-makers, defensive elements and a veteran presence, the bench boss doesn’t have to hold his breath when one particular trio is on the ice. The balanced strategy is working quite well too.
Nashville holds a rare winning duo by virtue of claiming the League’s third most goals scored during 5-on-5 play with 60, while also sitting No. 1 in the NHL in score prevention with 35 tallies against, when teams are skating at five a side.
Jokinen, a 17-year veteran, says expecting more from each line rather than succumbing to traditional stereotypes can produce those kinds of results.
“The biggest thing is any line is supposed to score, even if they’re traditionally thought of as a defensive unit,” Jokinen said. “Our bottom six guys have started to pitch in and that’s good because you can’t expect our top line guys to carry the load every night. When you’ve got this kind of balance in a lineup, it prepares you for better and better results throughout the season.”
On the other side of the puck, forward Derek Roy agrees with Jokinen’s sentiment.
“It shows the faith [Laviolette] has in his players and that at the end of the day that any [line] is going to get the job done,” Roy said. “It doesn’t matter who’s on the ice in the dying moments of a game, everybody has to play the same way, [doing things like] blocking shots and sacrificing the body to win. Like [Tuesday against Colorado], even when we were up 2-0 and trying to get Rinne the shutout, our guys kept going out there and laying it all out.”
In years past with Nashville icing a “score-by-committee” lineup, rolling four lines happened more out of necessity than anything else; but as dynamic as the Predators top-six forward group has become this season, seeing the strategy revitalized is surprising, but no less effective.
“I like getting everyone involved when I can, and I’ve been able to do that because of the way we’ve been leading in hockey games,” Laviolette said earlier this month. “With us finding success, I’m able to put guys out there in a lot of different situations to help them be at their best. It also keeps guys fresh and things rolling regular.”
“It’s great to roll four lines almost all the time and to have the whole team going and [engaged],” Calle Jarnkrok said. “It’s so much easier to play when you have everyone involved rather than a first line that plays all the time. At the end of the game they’ll be tired when you play them too much, and that’s when you need to be at your best.”
The biggest benefit of regularly involving a team might be something that can’t truly be quantified, however. Several of the team’s players mention a belief that their squad can beat any opponent when they follow their gameplan, and icing four lines when possible only helps to increase cohesion as a club.
“The bottom lines are not any different than the top two in their responsibilities,” said Jokinen “I think that’s been the biggest strength of our team, that everyone is buying in and doing the right things...You’re not going to beat teams by three or four goals anymore, the League is too tight. There are a lot of one-goal games and we’re [ready] for them.”