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Nashville Predators

Predators’ Game 6 Fate Rests On How They Defend Their Net Front

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Photo of Ryan O'Reilly, left, by John Russell/Nashville Predators

As the Nashville Predators prepare to take on the Vancouver Canucks in Game 6 at Bridgestone Arena Friday night, the coaching staff and players recognize the task before them, and they’re not wavering in their approach.

In a series that has found two offensively-focused teams grinding out a physical, defensive battle, attention to small details in the defensive zone will dictate whether the Predators will return to Vancouver for a Game 7 or the Canucks will begin preparations for the Edmonton Oilers.

Predators head coach Andrew Brunette has no doubt his team has the necessary desperation, and he believes they have and will find ways to limit the opportunities the Canucks stars will have Friday.

“I’ve thought we’ve done a pretty good job for the most part; I still think we can be a little bit better,” he said. “I thought a couple games in our building we got a little loose in our D-zone coverage a little bit. But yeah…obviously I like our D-zone.

“I think we’ve been, obviously, the shot totals that we’ve given up have been pretty good. I think the desperation level of our group, the shot blocking, getting in lanes, sticks, responsibilities have been high. So I don’t feel that exposed there at all.”

Despite expecting his fourth child any day now, center Ryan O’Reilly is all business. He’s no stranger to pressure-filled moments, especially when returning to Nashville facing another elimination scenario.

“We played two solid games here, you know,” he said. “We just kind of had some lapses that ended up costing us.”

O’Reilly admitted to Nashville Hockey Now that the Predators’ defensive structure need to be a little tighter in Game 6.

“Yeah, I think we actually, you know, we’re trying to close plays quick,” he disclosed. “Obviously, they have a lot of skill, a lot of guys that can make plays. It’s definitely still a challenge for us. You know, I think the key to defending is closing quick, and you know, blocking shots when we have to which is important as well.”

The idea of closing on plays quickly will be of utmost importance in Game 6 as the Canucks’ play style should be of no surprise. Vancouver is focused on penetrating the Predators’ defense from the outside in an attempt to force Nashville to make a mistake above the circles and leave a player or players wide open in the slot and/or backdoor.

That play design continued to be an issue in Game 4, was something the Predators sought to remedy in Game 5, and they’ll seek to do so again Friday night. 

In Game 6, there are two specific plays to watch out for. The first involves preventing J.T. Miller from dictating play at the top of the left circle and tempting the Predators’ defenders from veering away from their defensive structure.

The second thing is the Predators must limit the Canucks’ speed along the edges when they inevitably gain extended offensive-zone pressure, which they’ve done successfully in every game this series. 

Brunette doesn’t feel Nashville has been exposed defensively due to its ability to get bodies and sticks in the passing and shooting lanes, but as a spectator, there are a variety of times where it seems like the Canucks’ offensive onslaught would never end.

Even if the shot tally does not reflect an abundance of chances, the eye test causes repeated consternation.

Through five games, the Predators have lived and died in how they control access to the front of the net.

From a statistical standpoint, the Canucks have had six unchallenged slot/backdoor goals, a goal from the point, two goals from the top of the left circle, a goal from below the left circle (where Juuse Saros was caught cheating slightly), and then an empty-net goal.

“The games are won and lost in front of the net,” Luke Schenn told Nashville Hockey Now. “That’s what we’ve got to continue to take care of.”

The battles in the defensive zone will determine who wins and who loses Game 6. With six of 12 goals coming from within roughly six feet of Saros, the need to clear that area will be the determining factor for the Predators.

If Nashville can protect the front of the net, the odds are in its favor to win and force a Game 7.

The weight of the situation is definitely felt by every player, but Schenn stated it’s important to put “process over outcome” and remain composed and handle the task at hand shift-by-shift.

Brunette wouldn’t disclose whether he would stick with his Game 5 lineup which had defenseman Tyson Barrie replace an ill Schenn. The latter skated with the team on Thursday and Friday, and he says he’s feeling better.

During morning skate on Friday, Barrie skated alongside Ryan McDonagh, while Schenn skated alongside recently recalled Kevin Gravel.

It would be interesting to see if the focus and need for a resolute defensive structure will lead Brunette to dress seven defenseman in a must-win contest. The rookie head coach is in a difficult position with the Predators’ season on the line. 

Schenn admitted the liveliness the home fans bring is something the team has come to feed off of.

“We can feel their energy and how good they were at home,” he stated. “Just the amount of energy and emotion even, you know, those TV timeouts too, they don’t even put anything up on the big screen besides fans just cheering and the noise meter. You don’t see that too often in too many buildings.”

The Predators’ defensive structure has remained a focus throughout this series, especially with the speed the Canucks bring — a challenge the Predators have embraced according to trade-deadline acquisition Jason Zucker.

“It’s been, obviously, a huge focus of ours and something we have to continue,” Zucker told Nashville Hockey Now.

Zucker has been all over the ice this series, especially in Games 4 and 5, and he will need to continue to be a force if the Predators are going to have a chance in Game 6.

If the Predators can prevent the unchallenged opportunities for the Canucks and prevent players like Miller from dictating the game from the left circle, the Predators have a good chance of leaving Friday night with their minds turned towards Game 7.

Follow Clay Brewer on Twitter/X: @ClayBrewer10

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