Stanley Cup Final matchup to watch: Predators defence vs. Penguins offence

Nashville Predators defencemen Ryan Ellis joined Ron MacLean to discuss the experience of reaching the Cup Final, the Preds’ incredible defensive core, and his former OHL team the Windsor Spitfires.

For teams to successfully navigate the Stanley Cup Playoffs they need to find a way to fend off two separate opponents at the same time: the team they’re actually going up against, and the injury bug that’s trying to eat away at their lineup depth.

The manifestation of that grind will be on display in this year’s Stanley Cup Final, with the Penguins and Predators both coming into the series battered, bruised, and injury-ridden. What could’ve potentially been an all-time slugfest had both teams been at full strength has surely lost some of its luster with some notable names on both sides forced to the sidelines.

What it’s left us with, however, is an endlessly fascinating chess match between two dominant position groups that figure to see a lot of each other between now and the moment the Stanley Cup is triumphantly lifted by this year’s champion.

The Hockey PDOcast with Dimitri Filipovic provides entertaining and thoughtful dialogue about the game of hockey with an analytical edge. Not as nerdy as it sounds.

The power struggle is particularly interesting from Nashville’s perspective, because they may be one of the very few teams in the league uniquely equipped to deal with the challenge Pittsburgh presents up front. The Penguins routinely feast on their opponents by putting them in a compromising position defensively with their unparalleled ability to deploy two top shelf offensive units, centered respectively by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The Predators aren’t your typical foe, though, because they can likewise lean on an embarrassment of riches on the back-end, with two defence combinations that would each undoubtedly be considered a top pairing in their own right if not for the presence of the other.

While there’s ultimately no right answer when it comes to trying to stop players of the caliber of Crosby and Malkin, if the first three rounds are any indication it stands to reason that Peter Laviolette will continue to lean heavily on the combination of P.K. Subban and Mattias Ekholm. Which forward line they’re tasked with shadowing remains to be seen; while preventing Crosby from taking over still seems like priority No. 1 despite his lack of five-on-five production against Ottawa, matching up physically with Malkin’s size looms large as well.

Regardless of the specifics, what’s become abundantly clear is that the two have established themselves as Nashville’s go-to defence pairing throughout this post-season run, handling the best the Blackhawks, Blues, and Ducks had to offer with stunning grace. That’s left Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis to deal with the secondary scoring options, with Yannick Weber and Matt Irwin being used primarily against bottom-six types as is the norm for a typical third pairing. The table below indicates how many five-on-five minutes individual Predators defencemen played against respective forward lines in each of their three series thus far, with the darker squares denoting most frequent head-to-head matchups:

 

This playoff run has served as something of a coming out party on the national stage for Josi and Ellis, with fans being wowed by the former’s dynamic offensive gifts and the latter’s ability to overcome a noticeable size limitation thanks to his unorthodox playing style. A big part of the charm with the two of them is how smooth they look with the puck and how well they play off of each other. Their individual skills are a perfect complement, with the combination of Ellis’ natural passing and Josi’s skating making them a nightmare to forecheck against:

They’ve turned that give-and-go breakout into a science this postseason, routinely swinging the territorial play and getting the Predators playing downhill hockey. Josi retrieves the puck in his own zone, sucks the forechecker in towards him, then swings it over to his partner Ellis and promptly fills the lane moving up the ice. It’s Ellis’ job to hit Josi in stride, and once he does that the Predators are off and running with a full head of steam, successfully transitioning the puck from one end of the ice to the other:

While all of the praise that’s been heaped on them is well deserved, the real story here is the de facto top pairing of Subban and Ekholm, which has been simply dominant any way you slice it. Despite spending such a proportionally heavy percentage of their ice time against the opposition’s most gifted offensive players, the Predators have only given up six goals against while controlling roughly 55 per cent of the total shot attempts and scoring chances in the ~300 minutes the two of them have been on the ice together at even strength.

A lot of things need to come together to generate that type of success, but a big driving force has been Subban’s extraordinary ability to separate oncoming attackers from the puck and cause havoc throughout the neutral zone for anyone trying to skirt past Nashville’s defensive blue line. He’s put on a gap control masterclass, using the combination of his skating, active stickwork, and trademark overall aggressiveness to step up and keep attackers at bay, making carrying the puck successfully into a zone a nightmarish endeavour.

The table below covers all 16 playoff games the Predators have played to this point, and all of the data was manually tracked by yours truly. If you’re curious about the methodology, you can read up on it here.

Player Entry Attempts Against Carry-Ins Against Dump-Ins Against Break-Ups Carry-In % Dump-In % Break-Up %
Ryan Ellis 107 53 46 8 49.5 43.0 7.5
Yannick Weber 55 32 21 2 58.2 38.2 3.6
Mattias Ekholm 108 55 44 9 50.9 40.7 8.4
Matt Irwin 59 35 19 5 59.3 32.2 8.5
Roman Josi 99 64 28 7 64.7 28.2 7.1
PK Subban 111 44 52 15 39.6 46.8 13.6

Despite what you may’ve been told about Subban’s apparent deficiencies as a defender, he’s been anything but this post-season. If anything, Josi is actually the roving, offence-first liability in his own zone — the kind of player people unfairly characterize Subban and Erik Karlsson as. Even though the style and charisma Subban plays with continue to draw the ire of certain unrelenting critics, all of it is ultimately background noise.

Regardless of the manner in which he accomplishes it, all that really matters is that Subban and his defence partner have been playing the most minutes against the toughest competition, and have still managed to be supremely effective despite these unforgiving circumstances.

If the Predators are able to keep this magical run going en route to becoming Stanley Cup champions, it’ll be because this dominant blue line led by Subban was able to keep its heightened level of play up against its toughest test yet.