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Nashville Predators 2017-’18 Season Preview

Nashville Predators

41-29-12, 94 points, fourth in the Central Division

Eliminated in the Stanley Cup Finals by Pittsburgh

Additions: C Nick Bonino, D Alexei Emelin, LW Scott Hartnell

Subtractions: D Matt Carle (retired), F Vernon Fiddler (retired), C Mike Fisher (retired), D Brad Hunt (signed with VGK), LW Mike Liambas (signed with ANH), G Marek Mazanec (signed with Slovan), W James Neal (drafted by VGK), F Colin Wilson (traded to COL)

Offseason Analysis: Let’s get this out of the way: yes, the Predators can make a second-straight Stanley Cup Finals appearance.

Oh, you’re expecting something more in-depth?

Usually this is where we talk signings and other roster moves, but I think the biggest focal point for Nashville has been a constant member of its squad since 2008, a player that’s been among the top-nine at his position (measured by save percentage and GAA) since starting regularly.

In 2012-’13, G Pekka Rinne posted a solid .91 save percentage for a 2.43 GAA, but followed up that performance a season later with .902 and 2.77 numbers. 2014-’15 was a return to form for the Finn, earning himself .923 and 2.18 marks, but ’15-’16 was another lapse in play (.908, 2.48).

That brings us to last year’s performance to earn Nashville’s first-ever Campbell Cup. 31-19-9 Rinne posted impressive .918 save percentage and 2.42 GAA efforts, the (t)seventh- and (t)ninth-best performances, respectively, among netminders with 50+ starts.

What’s alarming about this not-very-well-hidden pattern is we’re coming upon an even-numbered playoff year. Last season was undoubtedly a good performance, so is this recurrence a forecast for this campaign or can Rinne buck the trend?

The answer to that question lies in Nashville’s defense, and what a corps it has in Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm and co. Not only is this defense more than capable of providing an offensive presence (Nashville tied San Jose with 181 points from defensemen last season, tops in the league), but they were also adept at limiting Rinne’s workload. He faced an average of 30.1 shots-per-game, tying for 13th-fewest in the NHL.

No discussion about Nashville’s defense is complete without acknowledging Ryan Ellis’ offseason knee surgery that has him sidelined until January. He plays a vital role on this defense, having posted 16-22-38 totals and a +17 rating last season to go with his team-leading 137 blocks and 37 takeaways (second-most among Predators defensemen).

Providing only .19 points-per-game during his six seasons in Montréal, Emelin is no replacement for Ellis’ scoring contributions, but he’ll hold his own blocking shots having rejected 127 last season. Besides, Emelin likes to make his presence known in other ways than scoring – specifically by providing a nasty physical defensive force.

Considering he’s in a place nicknamed “Smashville,” he’ll fit in beautifully.

Offensively, Nashville signed two-time Stanley Cup champion Bonino from Pittsburgh (Like I always say: “If you can’t beat ‘em, sign their players.”) and Hartnell to replace Fisher and Neal, respectively.

This is Hartnell’s second stint in Nashville after being its first-round pick in the 2000 draft and wearing gold through the 2006-’07 season. Posting only .47 points-per-game last season, 2016-’17 was a down year for the 16-year veteran, so his one-year deal is relatively low-risk, high-reward for a club with over $6 million in cap space – especially considering youngsters Pontus Aberg and Kevin Fiala exist.

Instead, I’m intrigued by Bonino’s four-year deal to be Nashville’s second line center. It seems to make sense statistically to play Bones (.46 points-per-game for his career) at the position instead of Calle Jarnkrok (.35 points-per-game), but Bonino found his success on the Pens’ third line.

The difference between playing on the second and third lines is far superior to that between the first and second. So really, the question is if Bones is top-six material.

Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t. With Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in his way, Bonino never had consistent opportunities to play on a second line and showcase his ability. I think he’s best suited for the third line, but maybe he has a few tricks up his sleeve.

Offseason Grade: C+

Like students allowed to retake a test, this grade has the potential to improve after seeing the Preds’ final product. I will be the first to admit I’m wrong about Bonino’s second line abilities, but I want to see evidence that he is capable of playing the position. Beyond that, Nashville had very little it needed to improve. As long as they can successfully adjust to playing without Ellis – and then readjust when he returns – the sky should be the limit for this Predators squad.

March 26 – Day 163 – It’s so much more than a cup… It’s the Governor’s Cup

With four goals in the third period, Tampa Bay beat the Islanders 7-4 to reclaim the Atlantic Division lead.

It was actually New York that opened the scoring, courtesy of a Brock Nelson slap shot at the 8:54 mark (his 25th tally of the season), assisted by Ryan Strome and Josh Bailey, but the Lightning leveled the score 4:48 with tip-in goal from Nikita Kucherov (his 29th tally of the season), assisted by Alex Killorn and Andrej Sustr.  With his 14th goal of the season, Vladislav Namestnikov gave the Bolts a 2-1 lead only nine seconds after Kucherov’s tally, the score that would hold until the intermission.

5:02 after resuming play, Steven Stamkos connected on a slap shot for his 35th goal of the season, assisted by First Star of the Game Jason Garrison and Kucherov.  New York finally scored their second goal 23 seconds later on an unassisted Shane Prince wrister, his fifth of the season, to set the score at 3-2.  With 3:42 remaining in the period, the Isles leveled the game on a Johnny Boychuk tip-in, assisted by John Tavares (his 31st helper of the season) and Bailey, which held into the deciding third frame.

The Bolts took another lead at the 6:03 mark of the third when Sustr connected on a slap shot, assisted by Garrison (his fifth helper of the season), but the Islanders leveled again 19 seconds later on a Nikolay Kulemin snapper, assisted by Frans Nielsen (his 28th helper of the season) and Travis Hamonic.  Tampa‘s game-winning goal was scored with 9:51 remaining in regulation, a Tyler Johnson wrister (his 13th tally of the season) assisted by Second Star Ondrej Palat and Jonathan Marchessault.  Twenty-three seconds later, Garrison scored the first insurance goal, assisted by Palat and Marchesault (his 10th helper of the season).  The final goal was an empty netter from Victor Hedman, assisted by Matthew Carle and Palat (his 19th helper of the season).

Ben Bishop gets the win after saving 27 of 31 shots faced (87.1%), while Thomas Greiss takes the loss after saving 35 of 41 (85.4%).

After that result, the DtFR Game of the Day series now stands at 74-42-17, favoring the home sides by 35 points over the roadies.

I could be wrong, but I believe that this is the most exciting day of hockey we’ve had all season as, with the exception of New Jersey and Vancouver, every team is in action today.  Business opens at 1 p.m. eastern when Winnipeg visits Buffalo (BELL TV), followed an hour later by Pittsburgh at Detroit (SN).  3 p.m. eastern is the beginning of Minnesota at Colorado, which precedes the last matinee of the day, Dallas at San Jose, by 60 minutes.  Six games drop the puck at the usual starting time of 7 p.m. eastern (Boston at Toronto [CBC], the New York Rangers at Montréal [NHLN/TVAS/SN], Anaheim at Ottawa [CITY/TVAS2], Florida at Tampa Bay, St. Louis at Washington and the New York Islanders at Carolina), with Columbus at Nashville trailing an hour later.  The trio of nightcaps end the night at 10 p.m. eastern (Philadelphia at Arizona, Edmonton at Los Angeles [CBC] and Chicago at Calgary [SN]).

Whew… I know.  Gotta catch our breath!

There’s five divisional rivalries being played this evening (Minnesota at Colorado, Boston at Toronto, Florida at Tampa Bay, New York at Carolina and Edmonton at Los Angeles), and three are between teams currently qualifying for the playoffs (Dallas at San Jose, Florida at Tampa Bay and St. Louis at Washington).

Although both Troy Brouwer and Seth Jones will be making noticeable first returns to previous home arenas (the Verizon Center and Bridgestone Arena, respectively), the battle for the Atlantic Division lead is just too important to ignore.

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This will be Florida‘s ninth time featured in the Game of the Day series, where they own a 4-3-1 record.  The last time they were featured was March 14, when they lost 3-2 in Brooklyn.  With yesterday’s win over the Islanders, Tampa Bay improves their series record to 11-3-2.

The 41-24-9 Florida Panthers currently occupy second place in the Atlantic Division (due to losing a regulation+overtime wins tiebreaker) and fourth in the Eastern Conference.  To get to that position, they’ve played the fifth stingiest defense, paired with the seventh highest scoring offense in the league.

Led by Dmitry Kulikov’s 111 blocks, Florida has allowed only 2183 shots to reach 31-18-6 Roberto Luongo and co., of which they’ve collectively saved 92.2% for only 182 goals against, the fifth fewest in the NHL.  Although the defense as a whole has found incredible success, the penalty kill has not been as good, neutralizing only 81.25% of their infractions for 45 power play goals against, the 15th worst rate in the league.

Even with Vincent Trocheck’s team leading 168 shots, the Panthers have fired the puck only 2108 times, with a whopping 9.7% finding the back of the net for 211 goals, the seventh most in the league.  Yet again, the special teams have let Florida down, as their power play has converted only 17.06% of their opportunities for 43 extra man tallies (led by Aleksander Barkov’s nine power play goals), the ninth worst rate in the league.

Florida‘s last game was Thursday, a 4-1 victory in Boston.  As both squads are tied on points, the Panthers will take the division lead as long as they win tonight, but a regulation loss paired with a Bruins win will reduce their lead for second place to three points.

The 43-26-5 Tampa Bay Lightning are currently first in the Atlantic Division and third in the Eastern Conference.  The third best defense in the league has gotten them to that position, which has been backed by the 12th best offense.

Led by Hedman’s 128 blocks, the Lightning has allowed only 2096 shots to reach 31-19-4 Ben Bishop and co., of which they’ve collectively saved 92.5% for 173 goals against, the third fewest in the NHL.  That success continues even when a man down, as Tampa‘s sixth ranked penalty kill neutralizes 83.71% of opposing power plays, allowing only 36 extra man goals.  Further improving on that solid rate, they’ve scored seven shorthanded goals, two more than the league average.

Even with Stamkos’ team leading 199 shots, the Bolts have fired the puck only 2125 times, with a solid 9.4% finding the back of the net for 202 goals (led by Stamkos’ 35 tallies), the 12th most in the league.  Tampa‘s hole continues to be their power play, as their 16.46% success rate, good for 40 extra man goals (led by Stamkos’ 13 power play tallies), ranks fifth worst in the NHL.

With last night’s 7-4 victory over the Islanders, Tampa Bay enters this game riding a three game winning streak.  A win tonight officially breaks the tie for the division lead, but a loss could give them only a three point lead over third place.

Florida has already won the Governor’s Cup this season, regardless of tonight’s outcome, with a 3-1-0  against the Bolts – but this game is much more important than an in-state trophy series.  The last time they met was January 23, a 5-2 Panthers victory in Sunrise.

Some players to keep an eye on in tonight’s game include Florida‘s Luongo (four shutouts [tied for sixth most in the league], .922 save percentage [tied for seventh best in the league] and 31 wins [tied for eighth most in the league]) & Tampa Bay‘s Bishop (2.05 GAA [second best in the league], .927 save percentage [second best in the league], five shutouts [tied for second most in the league] and 32 wins [tied for sixth most in the league]), Hedman (+23 [10th best in the league]) and Stamkos (35 goals [tied for fourth most in the league]).

I don’t see a lot of goals being scored in this one.  Given the fact that neither of Florida‘s special teams give them much of an advantage and that the Lightning are playing at home, I think I’m leaning towards a Tampa Bay winner.  That being said, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Panthers pull off the upset, proven by them already winning the season series.