To truly improve, Predators look to bolster special-teams play

BY foxsports • November 24, 2014

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- If you are going to nitpick the second-best start in franchise history, then special teams play by the Predators might be a good place to start.

Through Saturday's 3-2 shootout win over the visiting Panthers and Sunday's league action, the Predators (13-5-2) are second in the Central Division with 28 points and trailing the Blues by just a point. That's also good enough to currently sit fourth in the Western Conference, but only three points behind by the leading Ducks.

While they're five-on-five play has been extraordinary, the defense on par as usual and the goaltending of star Pekka Rinne as good as ever, the Predators feel improvement on both the power play and penalty kill is the next big step.

"I can tell you that when your specialty teams score and your penalty kills don't give up any," said first-year Predators coach Peter Laviolette, "You've got a really good chance of winning the hockey game."

The Predators rank 24th in the league on the power play at 14.8 percent, while sitting even lower on the penalty kill at 74.5 percent to rank 27th in the league.

"We work on our power play and our penalty kill," Laviolette said. "They are getting better. The power play is generating a lot more shots. We are starting to get the puck to the net and on the net and in the net from the power play.

"The penalty kill has become a lot more aggressive. So, we're working on things constantly here to get better."

Three Predators -- star defenseman Shea Weber, center Craig Smith and rookie forward Filip Forsberg -- have scored two power play goals each. Only three other Predators -- forward James Neal, defenseman Roman Josi and winger Taylor Beck -- have scored a power-play goal.

Then again, the Predators have outscored opponents 44-25 while playing five-on-five. That plus-19 ratio thus far contrasts the minus-21 differential for last season when playing at even strength.

After blanking the Panthers for 59 minutes Saturday night, and the Predators about to close for a 2-0 win, the visitors scored two goals in the final minute to send the game into overtime and, eventually, the shootout.

Rinne stopped all four of the Panthers' shootout attempts to get his 13th win of the season. That ties Canadiens netminder Carey Price for the most wins in the league. But Rinne got to win No. 13 in 17 starts, while Price has started 18 games.

"I was still pretty upset with the goals when we started (overtime)," Rinne said of giving up the two late goals after playing so well all night. "It's a 1-0 game for a good portion of the game, and then we score the second goal, but eventually they get those two quick goals, and I was pretty frustrated."

The two-time Vezina Trophy finalist for the NHL's top goaltender, Rinne missed two-thirds of last season with a hip infection following off-season surgery. But he has returned this year with a vengeance, and expects to stop all shots thrown his way.

"The second goal they just threw the puck at the net and it ended up going off my arm," Rinne said. "It was pretty unlucky. But we stuck with it, and it was a big goal by Forsberg in the shootout for us."

Rinne is just one of seven NHL goalies to play at least 17 games. He is currently fifth in the league in both goals-against average (1.92) and save percentage (.930).

Rookie forward Filip Forsberg continues to not only be one of the hottest rookie forwards in the league, but one of the hottest forwards period.

Following his first career shootout goal to win Saturday's game, he not only leads the team and all NHL rookies with 22 points (nine goals, 13 assists), but sits 12th overall in the league.

Forsberg also leads the NHL in plus/minus ratio at plus-20, four points higher than second-place Vladimir Tarasenko, the Blues' forward. He also leads all league rookies in ice time (17:06) and has been a key winger on the Predators' top forward line with center Derek Roy and winger James Neal.

aturday night, the Predators peppered Panthers goaltender Roberto Luongo with a season-high 50 shots, the most since the Predators fired 55 shots against the Canadiens on Nov. 14, 2009.

The Predators have had at least 35 shots on goal in three-straight games and five of their last seven. It's the offensive pressure Laviolette was seeking when he was hired to jumpstart a franchise long-starved for scoring proficiency.

"I think it's always the strategy," Laviolette said of the constant pressure of shooting pucks on goal, "But it's tough to do that with the way teams play defense these days."

Sixteen of 18 Predators had at least one shot this past Saturday night, including career highs for both Forsberg (nine) and Smith (eight). Neal leads the team with 69 shots, good for 20th in the league, while his nine goals, the same by Forsberg to share the team lead, are 12th league wide.