Another big goal by Ryan Ellis on Tuesday night tied the Nashville Predators with the Montreal Canadiens in the third period, a game that Filip Forsberg eventually won for the Preds in overtime.
The return of the young defenseman has been noticeable, not just offensively (the goal was also Ellis’ seventh of the season, a career high), but in his own end as well. Now with six points in his nine games back in the lineup, just how important has it been having the 24-year-old a part of the defensive corps again? I’d venture to say a lot.
Let’s review, Ellis misses 24 games due to a lower-body injury. Sure the team holds its own in his absence; the Predators go 14-7-3 during that span. However, wouldn’t you much rather have Ellis in the mix? Rhetoric, folks. Of course you would. He’s been one of the bright surprises to contribute – meaningfully – to Nashville’s terrific success this season.
The power play is perhaps the aspect of the game where Ellis’ absence was felt most. He acts as a quarterback on the point when the Predators occupy the opposition zone. First, he has terrific vision; he sees the ice exceptionally well. Second, the blueliner possesses great anticipation. He knows his teammates and has a great sense of their tendencies - as smart players do.
Third, the above-mentioned attributes and his physical tools allow him to make some awfully dynamic plays. For instance, consider the fake shot that ends up being a hard, diagonal pass to Craig Smith, James Neal or Colin Wilson when they pop out at the far side of the net. Hard to defend against that when it’s executed properly.
In 5-on-5 play, Ellis is every bit as effective as he is with the man advantage. For the most part, he keeps it simple. He holds the middle of the ice, keeps the attack to the outside and uses the confines of the rink to shut his opponent down.
And this isn’t said often enough. It’s not that common for a smaller athlete to play defense in the NHL. Your “ideal defender” should look more like Shea Weber than Ellis, but Ellis compensates for his lack of size very well. It’s all about body position and striking at the right time in the right way. It takes a smart player to be a good defender.
Lastly, Ellis and his defensive partner Mattias Ekholm are a great fit for one another; their games seem to complement each other very well. Ekholm is more apt to jump into the attack through neutral ice while Ellis will get involved in the offense mostly by pushing down the walls in the offensive zone. For this reason, they end up being in a sound defensive posture while giving the other side a lot to deal with in their own end.
The boy’s back, thankfully, and the club is better for it.