Consistency on special teams key for Predators down the stretch
NASHVILLE — It’s impossible to overstate how important special teams are to the ongoing success of a team through the final months of the NHL’s regular season and playoffs. They can further a teams success depending on how well they’re clicking.
In the same respect, poor outings from special-teams units can equally leave teams in the bottom half of the league or grasping for the final playoff spots as the season winds down.
Extraordinary five-on-five play can balance out poor showings from special teams. Such is the case for the Predators, who are easily the best team at even strength in the NHL.
That said, Nashville is currently on pace to finish among the worst 10 teams in the league for both their power play and penalty kill.
That’s not to say that ending the final two months of the season among the league’s worst on special teams is going to kill Nashville’s chances at any postseason success. Every Stanley Cup champion but one since the 2004-05 lockout, however, has been near or inside the top 10 for one or both of their power-play or penalty-kill units.
The lone exception? Peter Laviolette’s Carolina Hurricanes in 2005.
One of their biggest concerns to date this season has been their porous penalty-kill unit. During the first six games of January, the Predators had killed almost 90 percent of the penalties they faced, going 17 of 19 while short-handed.
Through the past four games, though? They’ve only successfully killed four of their 10 total penalties, including both against the Colorado Avalanche on Tuesday night.
It’s almost seemingly been Nashville’s way this season; a great stretch of five or six games where the penalty kill is near-perfect, and then it blows up for the next handful of contests.
"For a long time we were doing a really good job," said Predators forward Eric Nystrom, who is one of Nashville’s main penalty killers averaging a little over two minutes of shorthanded play per game. "It’s kind of cyclical. You go on a run and then it starts going in the back of the net. We just have to get back to basics and the things that were making us successful: paying the price, blocking the shots, clearing the net front, letting the goalie see the puck and just battling. It’s frustrating."
To an extent, the nature of sports is essentially a series of hills and valleys. You’ll win some and you’ll lose some. Special teams isn’t any different. Although Nashville’s had a stretch recently where its penalty kill may be suffering, the power play has been thriving. When the power play starts to show signs of fatigue, it’s the penalty kill that hunkers down.
Getting both units on the same page will be one of Nashville’s most important tasks through the remaining stretch of the regular season.
"We continue to work on it throughout the season and try to get better every time," said Predators forward Paul Gaustad, another of Nashville’s more heavily worked penalty killers. "You’re going to have ups and downs in the season, there’s never just a steady incline or decline. It’s up and down.We’ve had our ups and downs so far on the [penalty kill]. We’ve shown how good we can be and sometimes when it gets away from us. We just have to continue to work and do the right things. We have the personnel in here to do it.
"Special teams are those things that can win and lose a game, especially how close it is in this league. Toward the end of the season, everything gets a little bit tighter. They’re very important."
One major factor to consider is how much confidence each unit has.
Over the last smattering of games, Nashville’s man advantage has experienced crisper passes, better shooting lanes and even better shot choices. Conversely, the puck has just seemingly been finding its way to the back of the net on the penalty kill, regardless of short-handed positioning on the ice.
"I think it’s confidence, that’s why our power play has been successful [as of late]," said forward Colin Wilson. "When you start getting that confidence, you’re not gripping the stick as tight. Special teams is something that wins and loses games. It’s something that we’ve been concentrating on."
The Predators have to focus on finding some type of permanent solution for both of their special-teams units with under 40 games remaining in the regular season. There may not be a definite answer, even if they were to try and find some type of assistance prior to the trade deadline. But maxing out their full potential at the most opportune time is key.
"You want to be peaking at the right time in every aspect of your game," said Nystrom. "You want it to be firing on all cylinders. Obviously more consistent too. This year it’s been a little bit of a roller coaster, but sometimes it’s just bad breaks and stuff you just wonder how it went in the back of the net. It’s just about battling and being consistent. We got to make sure we’re doing that in the second half."
In the last three seasons, the eventual Stanley Cup champion finished the season with a penalty kill ranked 11th, third and fourth respectively. Their power play units were all ranked in the bottom half in the league. In some cases, both Los Angeles and Chicago experienced the same or better luck throughout the postseason.
The Predators have relied heavily on the goaltending of Pekka Rinne and their even strength play through the first half of the season. Statistically, Nashville’s strength at five-on-five could be one of the best performances the NHL has seen in quite some time. Coupling both together has given the Predators the advantage of being able to correct their special teams and still experience consistent success as the season rolls on.
Given what its clear strengths and weaknesses are at this point in the season, it doesn’t seem to be a pressing concern for Nashville to correct their issues over the next handful of games. Sometimes the solution presents itself when the time arises.
"I’ve seen it work a whole bunch of different ways," said head coach Peter Laviolette. "If you wanted to go into the end of the season flying high on the [power play] and penalty kill, that would lead you to think you could go flying high into the playoffs and dominate power play and penalty kill in the playoffs. It’s not always the case.
Certainly we’d like to have our game and continue to get it in order, five on five, specialty teams, get a healthy lineup and all of those things I think help. When it comes time for that, we’re going to have to find our own way."