Down the stretch, it seemed the Nashville Predators’ special teams were a question mark. They had just four power-play goals in all of March. However, in just a few games, the Predators have flipped that question mark into an exclamation point with five power-play goals in April, including two in their 4-2 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets in their regular-season finale.
The Predators currently sit 14th in power play percentage (20.9%) and are in seventh in power-play goals with 56. Much of that is probably due to their power play as of late. According to defenseman Mattias Ekholm, the looming playoffs have weighed on them.
“Just a matter of bearing down I think,” Ekholm said on the improving power play. “Coming down the stretch, we knew we were getting into the playoffs and in the playoffs it’s going to be key to have good special teams. I think it’s just a matter of getting sharper again and we clinched pretty early and the games maybe don’t matter as much coming down here, but now I think we’re trying to turn it up again.”
With a 1-0 lead in the first period on Saturday night, Filip Forsberg received a stellar feed from Scott Hartnell behind the net and wristed home a one-time shot to get the first power-play goal of the night. Then, at the end of the first period, Forsberg was able to beat the buzzer (for real, this time) with a second straight power-play goal.
Head coach Peter Laviolette was happy to see the power play score at a favorable clip. He attributed its slump to a calculated resting plan that includes fewer practices.
“The good thing is just from a practice standpoint when you think about it,” Laviolette said. “We haven’t practiced much from managing the end of last year to the travel and the demands of this year, the possibility of what might come as far as a schedule goes or an extended schedule, we’ve really tried to manage our guys in the time and that’s cut down on practices.”
“As you guys know, we try to hit that a lot, especially training camp early in the year. But when the practices stop coming, and you’re just relying on the games, you don’t really get an opportunity to work on stuff. The next couple of times we get on the ice, we’re going to have an opportunity to jump out there and work on some power play and I think that will be helpful as well. I do think you can grab confidence from scoring some goals and being a contributing factor inside of a game, which we have the last few.”
This team knows firsthand the impact of power plays in the playoffs. Last season, they had the eighth-best power play in the playoffs with a 16.7% success rate. A few more goals could have made a huge difference in June last year.
They want to make sure things are different this time.
“Special teams are a huge part of the game in the playoffs, the momentum swings,” center Ryan Johansen said. “When we have the man advantage in the postseason, you gotta take advantage of it and make the best of your opportunities. It’s a good way to finish off here with the power play contributing.”
While the power play has fluctuated for Nashville, its penalty kill has consistently been a force. The Predators sit sixth in the league in penalty kill percentage at 81.9%. During the playoffs last year, the Predators were one of the top teams in that regard, which helped them take down some high-octane teams.
This year’s success also probably has to do with the personnel that the Predators have to roll out, and their bravery in standing, diving and kneeling in front of pucks.
“I think our coach is doing a great job of preparing us for the other teams and we have a lot of guys who block a lot of shots, Watty, Siss, Fish,” captain Roman Josi said. “I mean, those guys put their body in front of every shot and that’s a huge part. Obviously, Peks and Juuse, two goaltenders who are playing like that. Normally, the goaltender is your best penalty killer.”
Special teams won’t win you the Cup on their own, but bad special teams can cost you championships given the proper scenario.
“I think we’re a good penalty-killing team,” Ekholm said. “I think we have fast guys out there and can pressure in a lot of moments and in a lot of situations out there, so I think that’s a big key.”